The upside of worry

The upside of worry

Evelyn Lewin | Fairfax Media | June 13 2017

Alicia Penhorwood used to worry all the time.

"I would be up at 3am, lying in bed, running through my to-do list for the next day," the 24 year-old says.

She found her behaviour "debilitating".

"It got to the point where it was ridiculous ... it was almost like running off a constant sense of adrenaline, which I would use to fuel me through the day."

So, in an attempt to rein in her worrying, Alicia began reading mindfulness books, attending classes on the topic, and meditating.

It worked.

Alicia no longer spends hours ruminating over the same problem, and doesn't let her worries cause her anxiety levels to skyrocket.

Instead, if her worries can't be addressed "usefully", she tries to let them go.

Or, if she can do something to minimise her concerns, she lets her worries prompt her to action. Now she has changed her behaviour, Alicia believes the amount she worries is "beneficial".

Psychology professor Kate Sweeny, from the University of California, agrees worrying can be beneficial.

"Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile," Sweeny says in a paper published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass in April this year.

She says people who report greater worry may perform better in school or at work, as they seek more information in response to stressful events and engage in more successful problem-solving.

Worrying serves other purposes, too. It shows us that a situation is serious and keeps the stressor at the front of our mind.

Because such feelings are uncomfortable, we're often spurred to find ways to reduce our worries through action. That can be particularly helpful in areas such as health.

For instance, research shows those who worry about skin cancer are more likely to use sunscreen. The same goes for breast cancer and breast self-examinations.

That's not to say that worrying all the time is good for you. Rather, it's a spectrum, where the aim is to land plum in the middle.

Sweeny explains that women who worry to a "moderate" level are more likely to get screened for cancer, compared with those who either worry a lot or relatively little.

"It seems that both too much and too little worry can interfere with motivation, but the right amount of worry can motivate without paralysing."

When you worry excessively, you're not doing yourself any favours, says health psychologist Marny Lishman.

She says excessive worrying can interfere with problem-solving abilities, along with negative health effects such as sleeping problems and anxiety.

If your worries are consuming you, Lishman says the first step to overcoming the situation is acknowledging this.

"If it's getting in the way of your normal life and it affects your enjoyment in what you do, or if you are unable to be in the moment, then it's probably a problem."

Next, pay attention to what you're worrying about, and analyse why it's bothering you so much.

From there, you have two choices. You can either engage in a behaviour that will help reduce your worries (like getting a skin check if you're worried about skin cancer) or use a strategy to nip your worries in the bud.

"If it is a 'what if?' [kind of worry], call it that, and then don't entertain the worry any more. Distract yourself with something else."

If distraction doesn't work, Lishman recommends setting aside an allocated block of time in which to worry. When a worry crops up throughout the day, remind yourself you'll deal with it later.

"That way you won't think about them all day and night."

Once you hit that sweet spot of worrying – not too little, not too much – Sweeny says you're likely to reap the rewards.

She wants to reassure the "helpless worrier" – to tell them that "planning and preventive action is not a bad thing".

"Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all."

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