Too much, too little worry is problematic

Published 10:17 pm Thursday, February 11, 2016

By Anne Strand

Dr. Anne Strand is a chaplain in the Episcopal church, a counselor and retired marriage and family therapist. 


Since all of us worry, it is sometimes helpful to think of worry as a built-in warning system, an internal alarm that — when used properly —will alert us to danger and lead us to safety. Worry can be helpful when it is timely and matches the intensity of our situation. But, just like the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, good worry has to be just right — neither too hot nor too cold — too much worry or too little of it can be disastrous!

Too little worry is bad worry because it can cause us to make poor decisions and create unfortunate consequences. But most of us just worry too much — also a form of bad worry. Rather than solving our problems, too much worry becomes the problem. Here are some ways we can temper our worry, however, and learn how to get it just right.

First, it is important to understand the difference between productive and unproductive worry. Good worry is productive, bad worry is not. Productive worry is realistic. It examines our alternatives and moves us on to come up with a plan for responding to our situation. Unproductive worry rehashes the same tired ideas, gets stuck in unrealistic or negative thoughts, and makes no real plan for taking action. In other words, when we become trapped in unproductive worry we get caught running hopelessly on the same old gerbil wheel, going nowhere and exhausting ourselves.

So how do we get off that wheel, balance our worry and help ourselves to focus and move on? We may be able to prevent certain unnecessary worries from happening by staying aware and in balance and doing the right thing. But, what about the worry we can’t prevent and have to deal with as human beings? What can we do about that? Can we turn bad worry into good and how?

We can reach out and find connections rather than isolate and implode. When we feel connected to something larger than ourselves — a group, our faith, trust in another person — we are less likely to worry. Human beings are herd animals and we need each other to stave off instinctual fear and anxiety. It helps to confide in a trusted friend and to talk our way through a problem.

If a friend is not available, we can write it out and mail it to ourselves.

We can be realistic and minimize catastrophic thinking. Some of us find it difficult to keep a realistic perspective when faced with even a minor stressor. We fear that every lump means cancer or every disagreement signals a breakup. Rather than stewing about these “how awfuls,” test out the truth of these situations by discussing them with a trusted advisor, physician, family member or friend.

We can limit over-exposure to the news. I am not suggesting that we put our heads in the sand and hide from the latest news. It is hearing or reading the same news over and over that is troublesome — particularly bad news. (I include gossip here as well.) This constant exposure to negative events can increase our worry load and inflame our anxiety. Instead, actively seek out what is good in life and spread the word.

We can take action of some sort even if it is the inaction of letting go. There are many techniques for squelching worry through certain actions, meditations or prayers. But, most of these seem to be based on this well-known wisdom — whether they are directed to a higher power or not — that good worry moves us toward finding: the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.