Why Do We Worry?

Worry is a natural part of being human, it shows up for all of us. Our minds have evolved to look for danger everywhere. Worry is our mind scanning for potential threats that might happen in the future. This is a normal and essential part of the human experience.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

If we think back to thousands of years ago, worry was even more crucial for our survival. If we did not have an initial thought that maybe that tiger is going to harm us, or perhaps that plant is poisonous, or look out for that lion that always lurks behind the same tree we would all be dead and humanity would not exist.

Worry exists for a very good reason, and you need worry to show up from time to time. Trying to get rid of it would be a fool’s errand. It is not something we can stop. Worrying on the other hand, is something we do have some control over.

The Difference Between Worry and Worrying

There is an important difference to make between worry and worrying.

Worry is that initial thought that shows up when we sense uncertainty. It is automatic, we have no control over it. It’s our brain sounding the alarm – doing its number one job which is to keep us safe. Sometimes our worry is helpful and there is a very real threat that requires our attention. Often though our worry is a false alarm, like a smoke detector that goes off because we burned the toast.

Worrying is different than worry. Worrying is how we respond to the initial thoughts of worry. When we are worrying we are giving those thoughts all are full attention, and treating them as a very real threat – when perhaps no real threat is present. Worrying sucks us down a spiral, we keep going over and over the ‘what ifs’.

We are actively doing it, which means we do have control over it. If worrying is something you do often, it can feel like there is no choice as it has become such an ingrained habit. Almost as if you’ve fallen down that spiral staircase. Stopping it is definitely not easy, but it is possible.

The 4 Types of Worrying

It can be helpful to identify what types of worrying you tend to engage in. Some of these types do overlap.

  • Mental Review: this is when we go over things that happened recently to gain more clarity, trying to convince ourselves that everything was okay. For example, maybe you were at a party, you left feeling great, like you had a fun time with your friends. Then the next day some doubt starts entering your mind – “maybe I was annoying, maybe I offended someone, maybe my friend Bob was upset with me”. You start going over the events trying to convince yourself that this did not happen, or gain more information about it.
  • Mental Preparing: this is like mental reviewing but instead we are trying to gain clarity in the future. This is when you start going over what ifs – what if I miss my train? what if I become financially destitute? What if my wife leaves me? What if a loved one passes away? What if I am alone forever? This type of worrying is very future focused. You may get caught up in worrying about something that might happen many many years into the future.
  • Reassurance Seeking: we reassurance seek when we ask the same question to people over and over. When we are reassurance seeking we are looking for a specific answer, namely that everything is going to be okay. This is different than asking a question to seek out information. When we are seeking out information we are able to tolerate ambiguity and accept whatever answer we get. When we reassurance seek we are trying to gain certainty in things that are impossible – maybe it’s a certainty that you will never get sick, or that everyone likes you. We may also do this internally, for example tell ourselves over and over that everything will be okay.
  • Rumination: this is when we go over and over a perceived problem in our life. Problem solving is very helpful. Rumination can often feel like problem solving however it is very different. It is like out of control problem solving. We can get sucked into analysis paralysis, or get stuck trying to figure out a problem that cannot be solved. This can show up when we are faced with a dilemma – do I leave my job for a new one? Do I move to a new town? While there are important considerations to make in choices like these, we can start ruminating about what is the ‘correct choice’. If it is a dilemma, there will likely be pros and cons on both sides making no one correct decision. Another common rumination we might engage in is trying to figure ourselves out, maybe trying to figure out ‘what’s wrong with me?’ We might continually go over all our past mistakes trying to find some answer or solution.

Reasons Why Worrying Happens

There are two main reasons why we engage in worrying. Worrying does something for us, which is why we keep doing it:

  1. Controlling for Uncertainty: Life is filled with uncertainty. We do not know what the future holds. Worrying can feel like we’re in control of this, it helps us feel like we are gaining a sense of certainty. It comes from a good place, it’s us wanting to exert control over our lives and protect what is important to us. The issue is worrying can pull us away from what matters to us. We can become paralyzed by it, and not engage in the things we want to.
  2. Reduces Distress: This might sound odd, as worrying and feelings of anxiety that accompany it are distressing. However, worrying can provide some relief from other and perhaps more uncomfortable feelings – maybe it is a fear that shows up, or guilt coupled with the belief that if you don’t worry and something bad happens it will be your fault, or maybe it is some other difficult feeling. Worrying can provide some temporary relief from this, it can make you feel like you are solving a problem or preparing yourself for something bad happening. The issue is that this relief is very temporary, and there is a lot of distress that comes with worrying.

To sum things up there is a key difference between worry and worrying. Worry is a natural part of being human and helps protect us from danger, we need worry. Worrying on the other hand is more active, and something that we engage in. We do it because it helps us gain certainty and temporarily reduce distress.

How to Stop the Spiral of Worrying

If you find your worrying is pulling you away from the life you want here are some things you can do:

  1. First notice that you are engaging in worrying – one way to do this is identify what type of worrying you are doing – i.e. mental review, reassurance seeking, rumination, or mental preparing?
  2. Try embracing uncertainty – remind yourself of what you can control and what you cannot control.
  3. Practice making room for any discomfort that arises – for e.g. breathing into sadness, guilt, fear, or something else. Self-compassion can be a useful tool for this, check out more info on this topic here.
  4. Engage in what you want to do in this moment – do you want to engage in worry, or is there another move you are wanting to make in this moment that would pull you closer towards the life that you want? Getting in touch with what is important to you can provide a useful guide, check out exercises for this here.

Additional Resources

Here are some books that can help you break free from worrying:

Worrying is Optional By Ben Eckstein

Things Might Go Terribly Horribly Wrong By Kelly G. Wilson and Troy DuFrene

If you find worrying is controlling your life and you are looking for help reach out to a mental health professional.

What if anxiety was not the problem?

Anxiety, it’s painful, it’s annoying, it’s inconvenient, sometimes it can feel downright unbearable. But what if anxiety itself was not the issue?

Anxiety is there to protect us

Anxiety is an emotion that we all get to experience. It shows up to protect us from some type of danger. This could be a physical threat to our life, social rejection, or perhaps the possibility of failure.

Our brains are wired to protect us. The caveman that spent most of their day scanning the environment for any type of threat was more likely to survive and pass their genes onto future generations. The result? We all have minds that are wired to be anxious.

So, what can we do with anxiety? Fight hundreds of thousands of years of evolution? Seems like an unimaginable feat. What if there was something easier we could do?

The costs of trying to get rid of it

What if anxiety was not actually the problem but the problem was all the things we rely on to get rid of anxiety?

The wine we might overindulge in at the end of the night, the person we didn’t ask out on that date, the challenge we turned down at work, the party we did not go to.

What if the problem was also how we treat ourselves when anxiety shows up? All those harsh things we say to ourselves to make anxiety go away.

The struggle

Whenever an uncomfortable emotion shows up our mind almost always starts struggling with it.

For example, let’s say anxiety shows up, a very natural human emotion. Our mind does not like anxiety, it’s unpleasant, so what does it try to do? It tries to get rid of it. Our mind might start saying oh no! There’s anxiety, I don’t want anxiety, why is it coming up right now, what’s wrong with me? Now we have anxiety about anxiety. Our mind might start beating us up, what’s wrong with me, no one else seems to be struggling, I’m pathetic. Now we have sadness about our anxiety about our anxiety. This struggle can seem never ending and create a cascade of even more difficult emotions!

How to drop the struggle

What if there was a way to drop the struggle with anxiety? Anxiety shows up, and it’s not that we like it or want it, but we choose to not struggle with it. This takes a lot of practice, and does not come natural to any human!

There are generally 3 steps to dropping the struggle with any unpleasant emotion.

  1. Acknowledge: the first step is simply acknowledging the emotion. Often times we can get so caught up in a feeling, that we might not even notice what is happening. Acknowledging can be as simple as saying to yourself “I notice a feeling of anxiety” “I notice this feeling in my stomach”.
  2. Allow: the next step is practicing allowing it to be there, even though it is unpleasant. This can include saying to yourself “aha, anxiety, there you are, I recognize you are here to protect me from danger, thank you for trying to do your #1 job!”
  3. Accommodate: the final step is the hardest one. Accommodating means making room for the feeling. Allowing it to come and stay and go in its own time. In practice this can involve taking some deep breaths around the feeling, and as you are breathing around the feeling imagine that you are creating a space for it. If the anxiety grows, try to give it even more space.

How will this be helpful?

Anxiety is an inevitable part of life. It shows up for everyone. Often the issue is not anxiety itself but all the things we do to avoid anxiety in the first place.

When we practice dropping the struggle with anxiety, it’s freer to come and stay and go in its own time. With practice it doesn’t have to hold us back from doing the things we want to do, it can actually come along for the ride.

Practice, practice, practice

This idea sounds simple but requires a lot of practice. If you’d like to practice dropping the struggle with anxiety (or any unpleasant feeling you may be struggling with) check out this guided exercise where I walk you through the steps by imagining an emotion as an object.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this short youtube clip on the struggle switch which explains this idea of dropping the struggle (I reference it in the beginning of the audio exercise).