How worrying can work in your favour
Of all our mental impulses, worry probably gets the least respect. We chide overly nervous people for being worrywarts; too much rumination causes worry lines.
It’s true that fretting in excess can have significant side effects. Psychologists warn that abiding nervousness can lead to both fatigue and sleeplessness, even intestinal dysfunction. Acute anxiety can affect your focus at work or compel you to seclude yourself from others in the hopes of keeping your phobias at bay. In cases such as these, counselling is likely your best option.
But recent research suggests worrying can also have some surprising benefits. It can help you identify deep-seated concerns and spur you to address them.
Tap into your worry triggers
To harness the productive power of this impulse, the key is to keep it in check. “As with other emotions, anxiety is something we have the ability to shape to some extent,” says Charlie Kurth, an assistant professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.
One approach is to increase your self-awareness and notice physical manifestations of worry. Once you clue into what your body is telling you, you can try to disarm your anxiety- or, at the very least, better prepare yourself for a stressful situation.
Rather than focusing your energy on the fact that you’re anxious, says Kurth, it’s helpful to address the source of the anxiety itself.
Worrying helps prepare us for threats
What most worries you? Is it danger to your family? Personal failure? Fiery death? The things that spark fretfulness are largely determined by a person’s experiences and general disposition, says Alexander Penney, a psychology professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton.
“You often need to know someone’s entire life story, and especially key moments in their life, to know why they focus on the worries that they do,” says Penney.
When something causes concern, it activates the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with emotional responses and decision making) and hippocampus (the area connected to memory consolidation). Maybe you’ve inadvertently walked into a dodgy neighbourhood, or you’re at a party and just spotted your ex-girlfriend. Your central nervous system may trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, causing your heart rate to spike.
It’s unsettling, sure, but the first inkling of anxiety serves us well, says Kurth, because it can heighten our awareness of potential danger and force us to gather more information about the situation to better address the uncertain threat we face.
In that dodgy neighbourhood, you might try to find a better-lit, more populated area, or else flag a cab. At that stressful party, you might plan a stealthy escape or devise a line of conversation that might make a run-in with your former flame less excruciating.
Worrying is often a sign of intelligence
Given its problem-solving benefits, worry may also be a sign of increased brainpower. During his graduate studies at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., Penney explored the connections between emotional disorders and intelligence. Using a sample group of undergraduate students, he and his colleagues found that those with higher verbal aptitude-a greater vocabulary and ability to articulate complex ideas- tended to report higher levels of worry and rumination.
A 2012 study published in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience found a correlation between both high intelligence and anxiety and the depletion of the nutrient choline in one area of the brain, suggesting the two traits may have evolved in tandem. Lead author Jeremy Coplan told ScienceDaily that worry may prompt many of us to avoid threatening situations, which likely means those people have a higher survival rate. So if you’re a nervous Nellie by nature, take heart: it’s possible all that worry may be a key to evolutionary success.