Most of us worry at least some of the time. We can’t help it. From ‘Will I be late?’ to ‘Did everyone hate the meal I cooked?’ to ‘Am I going to get the sack?’ it’s possible to worry about pretty much anything.
‘My litany of worries begins at 5 o’clock every morning, without fail,’ says Hannah, 37. ‘I think that it’s something I inherited from my mother. She was an insomniac all her life, thanks to her anxiety.’
Living a worry-free life is often seen as a desirable – and achievable – goal. But, according to experts, not only is it unreasonable to eradicate all worry, if we did so, we could miss out.
‘We can’t expect to rid ourselves entirely of worry,’ says psychotherapist Andrea Perry. ‘Far better to recognise it as the healthy life force it is. I think it’s important, because if we see anxiety or worry as the enemy, then we want to push it away, stamp it out, get rid of it. But if we see it as telling us something, and we can use it to find ways to take better care of ourselves, that’s far more useful.’
So, how can we better understand our worry, and learn to use it to our advantage? ‘The price we pay for being able to think about the future is to know that we are mortal, and to know we are vulnerable,’ says Dr Martin Rossman, author of The Worry Solution. Our worries are rarely about what is happening right now, in the present moment. If we stop to examine them, we can see that they are about the prospect of some kind of future calamity. What if you are running late? Will your friends be angry with you, disown you, will you be left alone? What if you lose your job? Will you end up penniless and homeless?
‘Worry is often described as an allergy to uncertainty,’ says Dr Kevin Meares, consultant clinical psychologist for the Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust. ‘For a worrier, only small amounts of doubt are required to set off a large amount of worry,’ he says. ‘If you try to live your life by limiting uncertainty, you end up in a difficult place. You become controlled by routine.’ ‘I used to feel terribly anxious about going to new places, in case I got lost or turned up late, so I’d make extremely detailed maps and lists of directions, and always leave at least an hour earlier than I needed to,’ says Theresa, 42. ‘Even then, if there were a traffic jam I’d get panicky and stressed, so I started to avoid going to new places altogether. It wasn’t until my partner pointed out how difficult this was for him that I decided to see a counsellor.’
One of the reasons we find it so difficult to worry less (no matter how much our exasperated loved ones may plead with us to let it go or that it doesn’t help) is that it can give us a kind of comfort. ‘There are psychological rewards for worrying, even when we worry about the things we can’t change,’ says Rossman. ‘Worrying about something can partially satisfy a sense that we are controlling or doing something about whatever is worrying us.’ And when your most worrying predictions fail to come true, it’s tempting to think it’s all down to you. ‘The brain may interpret the connection between the worrying and the fact that the event never materialised as evidence we are exerting some kind of control over the situation,’ says Rossman. ‘It’s easy to see how this kind of “successful” worry can lead us to an irrational yet powerful feeling that we can fend off undesirable events.’
The upside of worrying
Although most of us are aware of the problems worry can cause, we may not realise it can have benefits, too. ‘It’s a good way of thinking rapidly about problems and solutions,’ says Meares. Worriers like to be prepared. They will over-rehearse presentations, they will double check everyone has their passport, they will never be without a map or an emergency fund. For this reason, worriers can be valuable people to have around. ‘The question is, how do you use your anxiety?’ says Perry. ‘Do you use it to make effective choices or does it completely deactivate you? If, for example, it makes you feel you’re not good at your job and you push yourself hard to compensate, then your employer may get fantastic work from you.’
Perry also points out that worriers are like ‘canaries in a coal mine’ – they foresee problems that others don’t. While researching her book on claustrophobia, she spoke to many sufferers who felt anxious about taking the Eurostar train from London to Paris. ‘Then, when a train broke down in the tunnel and people were trapped for 12 hours, the authorities said they’d had no way of preparing for something like that to happen,’ she says. ‘Anyone with claustrophobia could have predicted a train breaking down and people being trapped. In some circumstances, we need those people who have taken every care to make sure the worst doesn’t happen.’
This doesn’t mean that your worry, however productive it makes you, feels any less stressful.
But taking time to consider the benefits, as well as the ways you can manage your feelings of uncertainty and anxiety better, is an important first step in learning how to worry well. Meares aims to do this in his work with people suffering from chronic worry or generalised anxiety disorder. ‘The goal of treatment is not to stamp out worrying, it’s about changing the way you react,’ he says. ‘We help people move away from the content of the worry and think about the underlying process.’
A tool for self-knowledge
And if we can do this, we come to one of the most useful functions of worry – the insights it can give us to our subconscious thoughts. ‘We all worry about the things that are important to us – our aspirations – and our worry improvises around those aspirations,’ says Meares. ‘For example, someone may say they’re worried about their washing machine breaking down and not being able to fix it. When that person explores that worry further, they realise that they are worried about sending their children to school with dirty clothes, which in turn is a worry about being exposed to social scrutiny and a fear of being ostracised. Understanding what goals drive our worry appears to be an important step in overcoming it. This can also help us evaluate what is important to us.’
Meares often uses the cognitive behavioural therapy technique of the downward arrow (see above) to help patients examine their thoughts. ‘In this way, worry can be an important tool for self-knowledge,’ he says. If you want to get to grips with it, the first step is to determine whether your worry has a real solution. Talking to trusted friends or a professional counsellor could help.
But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there’s a place for worrying in everyone’s life. We can reduce it, but none of us can stamp it out completely. And we may well become a stronger, more capable person if we can learn to use it to our advantage. ‘If we are going to worry – and let’s face it, we are – we might as well learn to worry well,’ says Rossman.