There is an old saying, “If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.” And within limits, psychology shows the truth of this venerable axiom.
In fact, a new research paper reports that there are real benefits to a little well-placed worrying.1
The researchers found that worrying can actually help people perform better at work or school — by motivating them to seek more information about whatever they’re worrying about, and then engage in behaviors that help prevent problems or unpleasant outcomes.
People who worry also tend to take more steps that promote health and prevent disease. And the study found that moderate worrying can even help you recover from traumatic events and depression.
It’s all about the mind-body connection
So how does this work?
Basically, the research paper suggests that if you’re really worried about something, that means the situation is serious, needs your attention, and may require action.
So if you’re worried about your health, you’re more likely to eat extra fruits and vegetables, take some vitamin D, or add a daily walk to your schedule.
Worrying also benefits your health and well-being in more subtle ways, by acting as an emotional buffer.
For instance, we often hear the “Pollyanna” advice that worrying doesn’t do any good because most of the time, the outcome is not as bad as you fear. “What’s the worst that can happen?” they say.
Well, it turns out that when worry motivates you to solve, prevent, or mitigate a negative possibility, the ultimate outcome feels great compared to the worried state that preceded it (or what might have been the worst possible outcome).
The worry also helps you “brace” yourself for a possible unpleasant outcome. When it is (usually) not as bad as you feared, you come out ahead emotionally.
I believe that unexpected events, like the sudden, unexpected loss of a loved one, are so devastating partly because there is no time to worry and brace yourself. Thus, the outcome is the worst possible scenario. As I wrote in the June issue of Insiders’ Cures, I experienced this myself when I lost my mother a year ago. I had no time to worry because her passing was a sudden shock, like a bolt from the blue, followed by darkness.
What to do when you worry too much
In the study I mentioned above, the researchers concluded, “worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”
But just what is the “right” amount? Of course, extreme and excessive levels of worry are harmful to one’s health…again, because the mind and body are connected.
What the researchers did not mention is that to help achieve the “right” amount of worry, you need to separate the beneficial effects of worry on the mind, from the negative effects of stress on the body.
In other words, it’s possible for your body to be relaxed while your mind is productively and usefully engaged in motivational worrying (which also helps improve your overall health by stimulating and supporting cognitive function in your brain). I call this “worried relaxed.”
So how do you achieve this state? By using mind-body approaches for relaxation and stress reduction, tailored to your individual personality type.
You can discover which non-drug, natural therapies will work best for reducing your stress by taking my short “emotional type” survey at www.drmicozzi.com, and reading my book with Mike Jawer, Your Emotional Type.
You can also take a cue from the French, who have made an art out of productive worrying.
Worried world, or world weary?
Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, is often credited (or blamed) for achieving the philosophical separation of mind and body.
That insight effectively made it possible for the body to be studied according to the laws of natural philosophy, while the mind could be reserved for understanding the influences of moral philosophy.
This allowed early medical science to progress, but also imposed an artificial separation of mind and body (that doesn’t exist in the natural medical approaches I discuss every day).
We should not be so hard on Descartes by “blaming” him for helping to set up a paradigm that influenced medical research and practice for centuries. There have been plenty more recent opportunities to update his 17th century views of health and healing, but the modern crony-capitalist medical research and healthcare system hasn’t really been interested (for more about that, see the sidebar below).
And don’t forget that Descartes also famously stated cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking is intrinsically part of worrying, so the trait of worrying may be an inescapable part of being human.
In other words, there is “no way out” of worrying, or huis clos (“no exit”) — in the words of the 20th century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.
The new study about worrying reminded me of another French phenomenon — in Les Fables de La Fontaine, about the story of the ant and the grasshopper.
According to this fable, during the lazy days of summer, the grasshopper lays in the grass, fiddling his time away. (In a popular cartoon from my childhood, the cricket sings while he fiddles, “The world owes me a living…”)
Meanwhile, the ant goes about building his nest for the winter and gathering food and fuel.
Later, when winter comes, the grasshopper is shown shivering and starving in the cold, while the ant has a warm shelter (too small for the grasshopper to fit into).
The moral: Don’t be like Sartre, who was so existentially worried by the world that he became world weary.
Be like the ant. The ant was worried…and stayed well. Channel your worry into beneficial mental outcomes for your life and health.
How the “worried well” effect skews research results
Scientists have long noticed that a group of people known as the “worried well” are much more likely to volunteer to participate in medical research, compared to those who don’t think or worry about their health (the “healthy volunteer” effect, which means the study does not represent the general population).
The “worried well” tend to follow many different steps, all at once, to help prevent negative health outcomes. So while a study is trying to observe the effects of just a single “active intervention” versus placebo, the “worried well” participants are doing other beneficial things for their health on their own — typically diluting or even masking the real results of huge, expensive clinical trials.
For example, a recent major finding was that the so-called “benefits” of following a vegetarian diet in earlier studies were not the result of this marginal, restricted diet itself — but were the result of other healthy behaviors and lifestyles followed by these “worried well.”
In other words, a new “miracle” drug may not be miraculous at all. The positive effects shown in the study may instead be due to the “worried well” participants’ superior diets, supplement use, and other natural health interventions.
These are more reasons why the one-size-fits-all, “single pill for every ill” approach, which is rigidly tested in clinical trials, is often not realistic for the way that people need and want to live their lives.
Instead, what it really benefits is the careers of the researchers, who always say their only real result is that “more research is needed” — provided the taxpayers keep paying, and the big-government health bureaucrats stay in control.
1“The surprising upsides of worry.” Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2017;11:e12311.