“While we can’t do much to eliminate the stress in our lives, we can control how we react to it. We have the power to choose one thought over another.”
We all have those moments when our minds fast-forward. Zooming in on the worst case scenario, we vividly imagine the future horrible outcome, our powerlessness to stop it and the destruction – even possible pain – that results. The consequential hand-wringing, head-holding worry can reduce productivity, increase stress and compel friends and family to counsel, “Don’t worry!” But, is worry always a bad thing? Science says, no. In fact, science suggests that, at least at first, catastrophizing can be beneficial.
In his book, The Upward Spiral, UCLA neuroscience researcher, Alex Korb, explains that inasmuch as worry represents an action it offers a useful response that helps the brain deal with a difficult situation. He writes, “…worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it—even worrying—is better than doing nothing.”
Not only is worry helpful to the brain, it may also be a sign of intelligence, according to research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study involved 126 undergraduates responding to questions and surveys designed to rank tendency to worry and intelligence. The data demonstrates a correlation between those participants who scored high in the worry category and those who scored high on verbal intelligence.
“It is possible,” the article states, “that more verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry.” If you’re not verbally intelligent don’t, er, worry. The results also reveal that participants who scored higher for non-verbal intelligence “…may be stronger at processing the nonverbal signals from individuals they interact with in the moment, leading to a decreased need to reprocess past social encounters” – an action that could, indeed, be seen as highly intelligent.
How to forgive yourself for worrying
It’s easy to be hypercritical of habitual over-thinking, but worriers actually embody some very positive traits. In an Elite Daily article about the benefits of worrying, senior lifestyle writer Ashley Fern, lists compelling evidence, explaining that people who worry have such beneficial qualities as attention to detail, perspective, emotional expression, clear priorities, and an effective ability to learn from the past and plan for the future.
Still, with the anxiety that worrying creates, you may feel it would be okay to be a little less intelligent, or perhaps less of a model for how to see the big picture or prioritize. If that’s the case, then try these options for controlling the future fantasies that so often feel like they control you:
- Recognize worry as a mindfulness mechanism: Worry is always based on seeing the future, an action that takes you far away from the safety and clarity of the present. Feeling the physical sensations of fear that worry creates, or noticing you’re trapped in an unending loop of imagined dread, can offer strong mindfulness cues. The next time worry surfaces, bring yourself back to the present moment without judgment. Then, give yourself a set amount of time to worry followed by a deliberately distracting activity.
- Create a strategy: Essentially, worry operates as an exercise in preparation; once we are prepared, we may remain apprehensive – alert, ready to respond – but the need to worry evaporates. Being prepared results from making decisions about what you will do if X occurs. For each scenario that worry feeds your mind, choose a corresponding action or set of actions, so that your mind sees a balance of the negative future outcome with a positive, conscious response.
- Build a team: Fear and worry are lonely activities that generate a sense of feeling separate from others. Calming fears more likely happens when we feel a sense of connection, support and bonding. Based on the strategy you create, recruit a team to help you follow through in the event that the worried about event occurs. This can mean people who literally help you enact the plan, or who simply share the challenging moment with you and hold you accountable for taking the action to which you’ve committed.
Worry creates a sense of powerlessness that fuels sensations of fear and anxiety. The more empowered we feel – the more we sense that whatever happens, we can successfully handle – the less necessary worrying becomes. A big boost in the how-to-let-go-of-worry process also comes from actively exploring a sense of what is courage.
Aristotle proclaimed, “The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.” Acting with honor, self-respect and poise provides fundamental elements for doing something that frightens us. Making a practice of living with this ideal as a daily model prepares us to handle whatever the future brings – a mindset that negates the need to worry at all.