Worrying is a behavior like other things we do and it is something we’ve learned to do it over time. This learned behavior has happened through a combination of having worrying modeled for us, and positive reinforcement, meaning when we worried we got a response or consequence that is desirable. Now most people who struggle with worrying know that worrying isn’t always healthy or helpful, but like all behaviors and habits, it does meet some need we have even if it isn’t ideal or has negative consequences. In some cases, it might be helpful simply because it helps us avoid bigger problems. Perhaps you know someone like this; they choose to sweat the small stuff while they largely ignore much bigger issues going on in their life. But before we discuss what to do about worrying, we should consider some of the reasons why someone might worry.
Worrying is usually believed to be useful by the one doing the worrying, meaning it serves some greater good even if she doesn’t like the way worrying makes her feel. Some believe that it is through worrying that one can find the solution to a specific problem. Others may believe that worrying is the motivational spark they need to get something accomplished, or perhaps by worrying about the issue ahead of time it can protect you from negative emotions or outcomes in the future. Some may even see it as a positive personality trait.
But the truth is, worrying isn’t the same as strategically problem solving, it often is rooted in shame and fear which in the long run is far less motivating for you than operating out of a place of self-acceptance and hope. Worrying, while trying to be a buffer against negative emotions often exacerbates negative emotions and can lead to poorer performance and outcomes. The reality is, that while we can rationalize all kinds of reasons why worrying may help, in actuality, worrying continues to have negative consequences for us, causing us to be more restricted in our interactions with others, leads to self-doubt, and wasted energy that could be spent more productively and positively.
Worry then erodes self-confidences, causes us to question our own ability to cope and handle a challenge, and we then learn to see challenges as threats to our identity, an opportunity to prove how inadequate we might already suspect we actually are. For those who have experienced bouts of “imposter syndrome” this comes into play here. All this leads to pessimism about outcomes, we can “catastrophize” upcoming events, thinking the worst, which often then leads us to be biased. We actually train our brains to look for things to go wrong and then reflect back seeing that as evidence that we were right all along, when in reality it was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So what can we do in order to escape this pattern if we’ve already gone down that road? Certainly we can evaluate our self-talk statements, we can chip away at the subject of the worry (an uncertain event in the future for instance) challenge them and ask “is this really true?” can we think of any counter examples or evidence to lead us to a different interpretation of the event or anticipated outcome? What makes you so certain that it will go poorly for you?
We need to record what we say and use more accurate word choice, avoiding terms that magnify the concern such as, “this is going to be a disaster”, or “this is the worst”. While it may feel good in a way to over-dramatize the circumstance it also leads to negative consequences.
In the follow up post to this, we’ll consider some strategies to productively use both thoughts and behaviors to break the pattern of worrying and shift to productive problem solving.