Go Ahead And Worry—The Feeling Has Some Surprising Benefits
If you're a self-diagnosed worry wart, listen up! All of that worrying can feel overwhelming, but a 2017 review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass showed that it has its upsides. According to research, we may have evolved to worry because of two major benefits.
An Unexpected Motivator
People have the tendency to worry about everything—from what they should eat for lunch to how they'll pay their bills each month. Obviously, worrying doesn't feel good. The review points out that worrying is accompanied with unpleasant thoughts, and in extreme levels, can even pair with depression, health problems, or mental illness. How can there possibly be upsides?
To understand the positive side of worrying, you must understand its evolutionary benefit. When you could have a run-in with a predator at any moment, it wouldn't help to mellow out—lions don't care how chill you are. In that situation, worrying was an instinctual behavior that literally saved our ancestors' lives.
But there's a more immediate benefit, too. When you worry, you mentally prepare yourself for the worst. If you're worried about getting skin cancer, for example, you're more likely to coat yourself in sunscreen. If you're worried about bombing a project, worrying might motivate you to be more productive to help you avoid failure.
The Best Defense
In 2016, Sweeny found another benefit of worrying in a study she conducted with law students. While waiting the long four months for their results from the California bar exam, the students completed questionnaires every two weeks to report their level of worry. Then they did it again once they knew their results. The biggest worriers were in the best shape when they got the news, Sweeny writes: "Participants who suffered through a waiting period marked by anxiety, rumination, and pessimism responded more productively to bad news and more joyfully to good news, as compared with participants who suffered little during the wait."
Inverse describes this benefit of worrying as an "emotional buffer," a sort of self-defense. If the worried students fail, no big deal—they've already been through all the emotional turmoil they're going to experience. If they pass, well, even better. Their emotions have nowhere to go but up. So the next time you start to worry about your worrying, don't worry...science says it's good for you.
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