Worrying is automatic for many, the slightest problem triggers relentless thought, interrupting all aspects of living. Worry doesn’t just draw from emotional wellness but also impacts our physical health. Nothing new, right? We already know worrying is disruptive. Even the most seasoned worriers know that too much worrying isn’t healthy. We can’t just force ourselves to stop worrying through shear will power. We must consider other avenues of defense to calm the worrying mind.
Is Worrying a Learned Response?
Incessant worrying is only partially a learned response. There are also biological correlates. If incessant worrying was simply a learned behavior, it could be unlearned.
Even stopping programmed responses—such as incessant worrying—isn’t simple. Like other life changes, we must employ intentional work combined with patience and persistence to achieve even modest improvements. Setbacks always besiege the wearied traveler during these long journeys. Just when we think we’ve made it, we discover a new challenge that sends us reverting back to past, up all night ruminating over the improbable, and
High levels of anxiety most likely have strong biological beginnings. Some brains are more easily aroused. A predisposition for anxiety and early childhood stress can set in motion a life long battle.
Physical and emotional reactions—such as incessant worrying—evolve from a complex mixture of biological, social, and experiential factors that weave together to create our feelings in the present. In a reciprocal determined fashion, each component heightens the response of the others.
Worry is Adaptive
Worrying isn’t bad. Worry is essential to motivate preparation for the future. Worrying is a byproduct of planning for the future. Ancestors that worried about an approaching winter stored food and built protective shelters during the harvest season; preparation enhanced the likelihood of survival during the more barren months.
Sarah Wilson, best selling author of First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, wrote, “happiness is generally impossible for longer than fifteen minutes. We are the descendants of creatures who, above all else, worried.” She continues, “worry is our default position” (2018, location 2511-2517).
We worry. It’s Human. And it’s okay—most of the time. Our worry motivates action or the feeling just passes and we survive relatively unfazed.
Futures Not Perfectly Predictable
Unfortunately, the future is not perfectly predictable. Therefore, preparation isn’t perfect. We can’t be certain whether we are over or under preparing.
There’s no crystal ball. The future remains largely unknown; no matter how much we plan—and worry. The unknowns of the future will continue to haunt the present, driving a need to prepare for every possible contingency. We must find balance. Anxiety over unknown futures consistently interfere with joys in the present. The cost-benefit scale for the effectiveness of planning peaks and then rapidly declines into lost sleep, inescapable anxiety, and emotional and physical fatigue. Moderate worry prepares but incessant worry destroys.
“Anxiety over unknown futures consistently interfere with joys in the present.”~T. Franklin Murphy
If we incessantly worry, we may even worrying over our worry. “Oh no,” we may muse, “I am a worrier!” Our worrying about worrying sucks us deeper into discouragement.
Best selling author Daniel Goleman explains, “the worrying mind spins on in an endless loop of low-grade melodrama, one set of concerns leading on to the next and back again” (2005, location 1455). The incessant worrier isn’t caught in the anxiety loop because their lives are excessively burdened (usually). They worry because their mind automatically scans the world until they find something to worry about. Solving a particular anxiety inducing problem doesn’t stop the worry only swaps the subject of our worried.
Goleman explains healthy worry as “worry is, in a sense, a rehearsal of what might go wrong and how to deal with it; the task of worrying is to come up with positive solutions for life’s perils by anticipating dangers before they arise” (location 1462).
“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.”~Dale Carnegie
Yet, as Goleman describes, incessant worry is a different animal.
“A close analysis of chronic worry suggests that it has all the attributes of a low-grade emotional hijacking: the worries seem to come from nowhere, are uncontrollable, generate a steady hum of anxiety, are impervious to reason, and lock the worrier into a single, inflexible view of the worrisome topic. When this same cycle of worry intensifies and persists, it shades over the line into full-blown neural hijackings, the anxiety disorders: phobias, obsessions and compulsions, panic attacks” (location 1463).
Sometimes anxiety constantly lurks just seeking problems to worry about. If this is the case, professional help may be needed and medications prescribed. Fearful pasts continue to live in the mind and must be combated.
Maladaptive Anxiety Is Not Always Cured
Incessant worriers constantly fight battles with wandering thoughts, and perhaps permanent escape is not possible or realistic; they may fight this war for the remainders of their lives.
Engrained patterns of thought often don’t fade with time—they strengthen, remaining a psychological thorn that disrupts peace and sleep for decades. Knowing a psychic pattern exists doesn’t solve the issue; and may even magnify the discomfort.
Goleman warns, “the one thing that chronic worriers cannot do is follow the advice they are most often given: ‘Just stop worrying'” (location 1523).
Be patient and compassionate with your propensity to worry, treating the bothersome flaw as a dear but sometimes annoying friend. Change may come with effort, but not always. Sometimes complete extraction of the thorn isn’t possible, we simply must learn to manage the derailment of thought in less destructive ways, limiting the disruptions, and practicing self-soothing.
Worry and Conscientiousness
Many suffering from incessant worry rise in the ranks. Their worry propels conscientious action, giving abnormal attention to detail. Mark Strossel in his wonderful book on anxiety wrote, “but if you harness your anxious temperament correctly, it might make you a better worker” (2015, location 5723).
We can appreciate our uniqueness, including the pesky worrying that occasionally enters uninvited, and disrupts our peace. We can worry and still be successful, happy adults. Our worrying possibly is one of the motivators that pushed us into the successful careers we now enjoy.
The recent wave of self-revealing disclosures of mental illness has unveiled a host of professional athletes, musicians, and movie stars that suffer from varying levels of anxiety. We can’t blanketly give credit to anxiety for propelling their success, but we can correctly deduct that it didn’t prevent them from succeeding.
Rollo May in his classic work on anxiety wrote, “anxiety cannot be avoided, but it can be reduced. The problem of the management of anxiety is that of reducing anxiety to normal levels, and then to use this normal anxiety as stimulation to increase one’s awareness, vigilance, zest for living” (2015).
A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic
Instead of worrying over why we incessantly worry, we need to find techniques that assist in managing the worry. Remedies will not work perfectly or forever. A medication or a behavioral change may provide temporary relief, but the magnificent world turns, our bodies and surroundings change, and the demon returns, sending us tumbling back to drawing board to find more creative solutions to cure our worrying ailment.
Maybe our worry over worry has much to do about nothing. We can cautiously watch the anxiety, seek help when it interferes with life, and compassionately accept some of our anxiety as normal. As we courageously move forward, opening to different approaches, we will discover healthier ways to deal with our worry and find our own niche in life where we can succeed despite the incessant worrying.
Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10th Anniversary edition.
May, R. (2015). The Meaning of Anxiety. W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition.
Strossel, S. (2015). My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. Vintage; Reprint edition.
Wilson, S. (2018). First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety. Dey Street Books.