What, ME Worry??

I’ve been known to tell people that I’m programmed to worry; worry is in my DNA.  True, I come from a long line of worriers but I recently read an article by a psychologist warning against that line of reasoning.  He, rightfully, said that claiming you worry by nature is a ‘no growth’ position, meaning people who say they are born to worry refuse to change.

Well, those were fighting words for me. Since I’ve built my practice—and my life—around change, I reckoned I’d better tackle this head on.  So, analyze worrying I have. True to form, I’ve been worrying about worrying.

Although I don’t remember being a big worrier in my youth, I seem to find more things to worry about lately.  I do remember putting my worry inclination to good use, however, when I was employed as an instructional designer.

Back in the ‘80s, I worked for an organization that had meetings before the start of any new project which they called, “Potential Problem Analysis.”  This was a worrier’s dream come true.  I didn’t excel at much while employed there but I could analyze potential problems like nobody’s business.

Worry Motivates

As I see it, this is the number one benefit of worrying.  Worrying can help you see potential problems and come up with strategies to overcome these problems. Worrying may motivate us to take action.

Like most every flaw and character trait, however, worrying falls on a continuum.  I’ve concluded that a moderate amount of worry is actually a good thing, and recent research backs up that conclusion.

Kate Sweeney, psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside, conducted ground-breaking research on the upsides of worry. According to her research, people who report greater worry may perform better and bounce forward from life’s inevitable disappointments as well as from trauma.

I have a few friends who are absolutely delightful people but, honestly, could use a bit more worry.  One of them put off getting medical attention because she blew off symptoms as being nothing to worry about.  The other friend didn’t have a routine diagnostic procedure (for many years) for the same reason…what, me worry?

One could assert that the outcome for both these friends (late-stage cancer) would have been the same, worry or not.  We’ll never know, but being among the “worried well”, I tend to think my endless googling of symptoms, remedies, and treatments counts as preventive medicine. In fact, research indicates that worry causes people to use sunscreen and get regular screenings.

The Worry Sweet Spot

I wouldn’t be much of an even-handed reporter if I didn’t mention the downsides of worrying too much. A joyless existence comes to mind. When worry becomes excessive and morphs into free-wheeling anxiety, this activity is neither beneficial nor functional. Extreme worry is harmful to one’s physical and emotional health. It also wreaks havoc on relationships.

Alfred E. Neuman is the Mad Magazine mascot and cover boy, who made the rhetorical question, What, Me Worry? famous.  In the 65 years since his debut, many of us have thought Alfred’s goofy non-worrying look was something to emulate.  The research proves otherwise.

The challenge is to find the sweet spot of worry: not too much or too little. Too much worry and too little worry are equally demotivating. According to Dr. Kate Sweeney, “Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”