This is a great question and one that is often asked!
Let’s start with the evolutionary view.
Our brains are most likely hard wired to worry! If our brains are doing their job well they are trying to ensure our survival.
In order to ensure our survival, however, they need to be on the lookout for danger or threat and then come up with an appropriate response that maximises the probability that we will survive such a threat.
So now you can see, our brains are great “don’t get killed machines”. This type of functioning was particularly adaptive in our early history where we were definitively more exposed to potential threats from other animals and possibly other tribes.
This is all great news then…our brains are actually trying to help us by pointing not only actual threats but also perceived threats that it wants us to pay attention to in an effort to protect us.
Well…it’s sort of great news and then again its perhaps not always so great.
Old Brain New World
The issue is that our society has advanced much faster than our brains have been able to evolve. The risks to our survival still exist but probably not to the same extent as it did even 100 years ago. So our brain is still doing the job it us used to doing but it is working overtime in the absence of real threats.
So is worry bad?
This is the interesting thing…it all depends on what type of worry we have and also what we can do about it.
As psychologists we agree pretty much that worrying is a sign that our brain is working well. So the answer is “no it’s not bad and actually very normal”. The issue is firstly how much time we spend with our worries and secondly whether we can take any action to lessen our worries.
Helpful and Unhelpful Worry
Psychologists like to draw a distinction between helpful and unhelpful worry. I often explain this as two sides of the same coin.
I like to think of helpful worry as something that a NASA engineer might have if he has to find a way of making sure that the next mission into space has a reliable rocket motor. The worry that the engineer has can be turned into something productive by means of more research, learning new technologies and carrying our tests. Worry can help him solve the problems ahead.
This can be contrasted with unhelpful worry on a topic which , no matter how much time you spend thinking on it never results in an answer something that is actionable.
When worry becomes an issue
It is generally this second type of worry, unhelpful worry, which can cause us the greatest difficulty. Unhelpful worry can have a habit of tipping over into what we call “rumination” which is a way of saying then it becomes an ongoing cycle of worry.
Rumination has been linked to higher levels of reported anxiety and also depression so it is often something that we need to look at closely.
What can we do to help ourselves?
There are a number of very simple techniques that can help with managing worries.
- Slow down-an often overlooked step!
- Write your worries down and look at how real they actually are.
- For those that seem real, now ask yourself “what can I do about them right now”. If the answer is something then look at what positive action you can take that might help you begin to move towards a solution.
- For those that don’t have an obvious answer step back from your worries and use a short term distraction measure and engage your attention in another task.
Getting the right help
If you are struggling with worry and feel you need some additional support please contact us to enquire about an assessment session.