Worrying can be seen as a debilitating thing — you can worry yourself into a tizzy about both big and small things, whether it be the results of a big test or what a potential Tinder prospect thinks about you or if you’ve got enough cash set aside to make rent this month.
But a review published recently in Social and Personality Psychology Compass from psychology professor Kate Sweeny at the University of California, Riverside, shows that worrying is actually — counterintuitively — a beneficial emotion.
“Most of my research is focused on waiting,” Sweeny tells Inverse. Waiting, as anyone who’s ever had to wait — which is everyone — knows, can be annoying, and it’s especially bad when the stakes are high: waiting for a diagnosis for a medical prognosis or the results of the bar exam, two particular events that Sweeny has studied. But worrying can help in those instance, Sweeney found.
First of all, worrying is an “emotional buffer” — it’s so unpleasant that people start expecting the worst and emotionally prepare for crappy news, a sort of self-deception, Sweeny found with law school students waiting four months for the results of their bar exam in California. This is a self-defense mechanism of sorts: If the news is indeed bad, then you’ve already invested all the tumult and emotional devastation of impending bad news, so that when the actual bad news comes, you’re not as torn apart. The process of moving on is easier and you’re able to bounce back faster. And if you get good news? Well, that’s great — and made extra sweet because you were initially expecting horrible news.
More importantly, Sweeny’s found that worrying can act as a motivational spark and literally save your life. “Worry serves this important purpose of drawing attention to something in the future to avoid or prepare for if we can’t [avoid it],” Sweeny explains. In other words, worrying about something in the future can encourage us to take preventive action when we might not otherwise do it. Worried about a car crash? Buckle your seat belt. Worried about a fire? Turn the oven off. Worried about that weird mole or lump or discoloration on your body? See a doctor.
“A dose of worry is important for health,” Sweeny says, speculating that there’s a strong evolutionary overlap here; after all, if you saw a predator cross your path, it wouldn’t serve you too well not to be worried about it and kick your fear and anxiety instincts into high gear for a fight-or-flight response.
Those factors — the motivating one and the emotional buffer one — bring one conclusion, according to Sweeny: Worrying is, actually, good for you.
But that’s a complicated thing to say. Worrying, after all, is tangentially related to anxiety, and debilitating anxiety is something many people experience to their mental health’s detriment, whether it show up in the form of PTSD or neuroticism or OCD.
There’s also the question of how you measure the optimal level of worrying. “Everyone worries,” Sweeny points out. Sure, but you can’t measure it as molecules or in a test form. But here’s the odd twist: People are surprisingly honest about reporting whether or not they are worrying and are decently good at gauging how they worried they are. Sweeny’s got a few theories why — “It’s not a sensitive topic, and people know themselves and know when they’re worried,” she says. Self-reported bias is a huge problem in psychological studies, but Sweeny says that since worry isn’t seen as a bad thing and is a universal emotion, it’s (almost) immune to bias.
That said, Sweeny says there’s something to be said about having a constant buzz of worrying. For one thing, she says to consider the two extremes of someone who is not worrying enough and someone who worries too much. If you’re sunbathing and not worrying enough, you’re not slathering on sunscreen, which puts you at risk for skin cancer. If, on the other hand, you’re sunbathing and freaking out about putting on sunscreen, you might not even venture out into the sun, avoid social interaction, and suffer a corresponding vitamin D deficiency.
Between these two extremes is an “ideal” level of worrying that’s evolutionarily and emotionally sustainable and valuable. What that is, we’re not yet sure, but there are a few patterns emerging. Up front, worriers who distract themselves with “flow” activities — things that make the time go by faster by getting a person into some sort of meditative, “flow” state — are able to handle their worrying better. “Making time ‘fly’ helps,” she says. Meditation might play a role here, though Sweeny’s not yet quite sure how.
Sweeny’s team is also considering secondhand worrying, or those who are personally connected with someone who’s going through some major worrying: How do you help best support someone? Do worrywarts tend to connect with each other? And something else she’s trying to figure out in this political climate is how worrying about political uncertainty — whether that be around the world or here at home in the United States — divides into the people who can adapt and channel their frustration to make life better for themselves and their community, or if some people can’t deal and compound their unhappiness into a downward spiral of depression.
We don’t completely understand worry as an emotion, but Sweeny’s upcoming research hopes to uncover whether we can rein in worry and its effects. For now, though, one thing’s for certain: If you’re worried about something, it’s not comfortable but it’s not necessarily bad for you.