Does Worrying Work?

Are you a “worry wart?” If so, then read on. If not, then don’t worry about it — unless you’re worried that you might miss something good….

Life can be difficult, and for the most part, worrying seems to be normal and reasonable. But what’s the point of worrying at all? I define worrying as obsessive thought over what could happen, might happen, will happen, has already happened, or might some day possibly happen. The key word here is “thought.” As opposed to constructive thinking, worrying is pointless, even destructive. It’s not an issue of whether it’s good or bad; it’s a question of what purpose it serves.

Let’s take, for example, a student whose SAT exam is approaching. To worry about the test seems to be reasonable. Indeed, wouldn’t a failure to worry about it be an indication of a refusal to treat it as significant? Not quite. And that brings up an important distinction: Worry versus planning. If your SAT is coming up and you start to worry, then you can validate that worry by saying, “What can I do about it?” The point is to replace the worry with action.

Planning is more constructive than worrying, provided you come up with a workable strategy and actually follow it through. (Ahh, procrastination. We’ll save that for another article.) Planning replaces worry with a call to action. However, some people are afraid to let go of their worry. Worry serves as an early message from the subconscious to pay attention to something. Not a bad thing! Without some anxiety, you’d never pay your bills, or look before crossing the street, or do anything else that’s crucial. But this initial form of worry is nothing more than a signal — not a lifestyle. If this perfectly rational unease starts to take on a life of its own, then you have the beginning stages of mental illness, neurosis, dysfunction, stress or whatever you want to call it.

When I first started my career, I would come home from work and sometimes worry about things I might have left on my desk. Had I remembered to do this or that? It interfered with my ability to relax. Early on, I figured out a way to cure this. I’d ask myself, “Is this important enough to warrant driving back to the office?” In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer was clearly “No.” So, I reasoned, if it’s not worth going back to the office tonight, then it’s not worth thinking about tonight, either. Thinking about it will do absolutely nothing to change the reality of it. It took a bit of practice to perfect this technique, but now it’s routine.

For those who worry that you didn’t lock the door, or maybe left an appliance on in the house, this approach can also be helpful. “Is it worth driving back twenty minutes to double check?” This isn’t rhetorical — you should really mean it. If you judge it worthwhile, and consider all the consequences, then do it. Even if you repeatedly go back and you’ve never left anything on, it’s not a waste of time. It’s an opportunity to remind yourself that the track record of your worry isn’t very good. It can be difficult to not go back and check, but when you repeatedly find that everything’s OK, you’ll become more confident about your ability to control your worries.

For 60 years, Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman posed the perennial question, “What, me worry?” His advice is undeniably sound. And you can take it a step further: You can still treat things as important by simply replacing the worry with action (something poor Alfred never did).

If the anxiety is valid, then deal with it. If it’s about something over which you have no immediate control, then let it go! Dare to think about something else. It’s not easy at first, but the results are rewarding, and the Land of No Worry can be a peaceful place to live.


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