Psychologists have great news for people who worry a lot

Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Image: AP Photo/Jan Bauer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There’s no way around it: I am chronic worrier. I worry about running late, but also about showing up to a party too early. About whether my moles have turned cancerous and whether my son is eating enough vegetables. Worries are the first things to pop into my mind when I wake. They creep into my evening meditations, and they unfurl onto the pages of my journal when I write.

I even worry that I worry too much—but that worry, at least, may be unfounded. A recent paper, published in the journal Social & Personality Psychology Compass, reveals that being a worrywart might actually be good for your health. Kate Sweeney and her co-author Michael D. Dooley write, “A review of the effects of worry revealed that worry is associated with recovery from traumatic events, adaptive preparation and planning, recovery from depression, and uptake of health-promoting behaviors.”

“Worry is really good for alerting us to the fact that there’s something we might need to be paying attention to and maybe do something about it,” says Sweeney, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. While there are certainly downsides to fretting over whether or not you left the oven on whenever you leave the house, “from an evolutionary perspective, psychology folks might say that we develop these patterns of negative emotions, including worry, because they’re useful.”

When worrying is good for your health

Take my own frequent health-related fears. Over the past year, I’ve visited my doctor to discuss a growing spot under my eye (not cancerous now, but good to watch); the pain in my wrist (not carpal tunnel yet, but I was urged to wear a brace to prevent its onset); the numbness in my shoulders (no surgery required, but physical therapy helped it ease up). When such concerns get out of control, they can veer into hypochondria—a condition that plagued my maternal grandmother, whose moans of anxiety and litany of “what ifs” preceded her. But within reason, worrying about your health may lead you to take steps that can ward off illness down the line, and help you catch actual problems early.

Sweeney’s study notes that other research has found that Americans who worry about skin cancer were more likely to use sunscreen, and those who worried more about breast cancer were more likely to do breast self-examinations, get regular mammograms, and see their doctors. “The people who are more worried to a reasonable degree are more likely to engage in those preventative behaviors,” Sweeney confirms.

By contrast, she says, people who don’t worry enough can find themselves in trouble. “If someone is completely out of touch with the possibility that their behavior is putting them at risk for skin cancer, lung cancer, or car accidents,” she says, “there’s a lot of evidence that suggests they are probably harming themselves more by not worrying.”

There’s certainly such a thing as too much worrying, and it never hurts to seek professional help if it seems to be interfering with your ability to get through everyday life. But friends and family of worrywarts should avoid dismissing their loved one’s anxieties.

“We have data suggesting that people saying ‘Hey don’t worry,’ or ‘Stop worrying,’ is one of the least helpful things people can say because all it does is isolate you and give you another thing to be plagued by,” Sweeney says. “It’s really harmful to feel that sense of not only am I suffering, but I’m suffering in the wrong way.”

Planning ahead

Worrying typically involves persistent thoughts about a future possibility or event—whether your presentation will go over well with your boss next week, or what to wear to a wedding in which you know you’ll be seeing your ex. Because it is forward-looking, it can be more positive than rumination, says Sweeney, which involves focusing on things done in the past and wishing they’d gone differently.

The latter habit often leads to regret and self-blame. Worry, by contrast, “is a good opportunity to think is there something I could be doing rather than is there something I could have done, which isn’t always very productive,” she says. Perhaps you’ll practice your presentation in front of some friends to ensure it goes smoothly on the big day, or retool your résumé even if you’re not sure you’ll get the job.

Worriers are also more productive than other people at waiting, according to Sweeney. She’s studied the experiences of people awaiting uncertain news, such as a medical diagnosis or whether they’ve passed the bar exam. In those situations, there may be nothing you can do to change the outcome, “but worrying can still serve a motivating function in prompting you to put your ducks in a row and make sure you’re at least prepared for bad news if it comes,” she says. In essence, worry often provides impetus to do something rather than nothing.

And there’s one other benefit of worry that any chronic worrier can easily understand—what Sweeney calls “worry as a buffer.” Because worrying is a generally unpleasant experience, “it actually makes other bad experiences feel better in contrast,” Sweeney says.

I know this feeling well. When I find out that my fears haven’t come to pass—say, that we don’t owe taxes to the IRS after all—the release of endorphins feels like a shower in my brain, a full-body rush. For a while afterward, I’m temporarily released from worry. Aggravations and arguments that might otherwise rankle become easy to brush off.

So if, like me, you worry about worrying too much, you can put that to rest. If the cost of worry is a little discomfort in exchange for being more proactive about your health and more productive in the face of the unknown, perhaps that’s a fair price after all.