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Articles



Worry

November 2014

I have seen several comments floating about the internet about worrying. They all seem trite, simplistic, unhelpful, and in the long term, detrimental to anyone struggling with what they consider to be excessive worrying. Here is a prime example:

“Worry is a total waste of time. It doesn’t change anything. All it does is steal your joy and keeps you very busy doing nothing.”

Another old favourite is:

“1) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
2) It’s all small stuff.”

I imagine that whoever penned these sayings expects people to read them, say “Of course! If only I’d realised; what a fool I am!” and never worry about anything again.

Worry is not a waste of time. Worry is an essential function of your mind. In the same way that pain serves to alert you* that your body is damaged, worry serves to keep your attention on something your brain knows is important, but has determined that you are not thinking enough about.

Typically, when you are worrying about something, it is something you find unpleasant to think about. Your natural inclination is to avoid thinking about it. If your brain thinks you are not giving a subject sufficient attention, it will remind you of it. By strongly emphasising a topic, your brain is attempting to override the urge to avoid thinking about that topic because it is unpleasant. Your brain is simply trying to make sure that an important topic is not side-lined, which is an essential safety feature of your brain’s operation. Worry is unpleasant because it represents a conflict in your mental processes, and one that is trying to make you think about something you do not want to think about.

It may seem irrational and unhelpful to be thinking about something that is going to happen if you can’t do anything about it now. The key to the success of the human mind is our ability to plan and hypothesise, using predictions about possible scenarios. If your brain wants you to think about something, it is because it thinks it is worth your time to do so. If a topic is important enough, it is worth preparing yourself for a situation relating to that topic in the future, hypothesising potential problems and thus working on potential solutions.

You may find yourself worrying about something you can apparently do nothing about. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, if it is a sufficiently important topic, it is worth trying to resolve the problem (or at least optimise the outcome) even if a solution (or indeed any beneficial action) is not immediately apparent. Secondly, even if you cannot find any beneficial action, there is great psychological benefit in being prepared, especially for a potentially unpleasant event in the future.

The problem with worrying comes when it overpowers your thought processes to the detriment of other essential lines of thought, or physiological processes. The reason for this is that the function of worry – to overpower thoughts to ensure that something important is not overlooked – will tend to get stronger the harder you try to fight it. If you are trying hard enough to suppress a worry, it will have physiological effects – making you nauseous, depriving you of sleep and so on. By pretending that worry is unnecessary and a waste of time, and trying not to “sweat the small stuff” or even the large and significant stuff, you will give more strength to your worries. If your brain thinks you need to be thinking about something, do so. After all, you are a part of it; it is not just a part of you. Try to give your worries sufficient attention; try to think about them rationally. If something is important enough to keep you awake at night (which is rare, but certain things genuinely do need to be addressed before the morning) stay awake and think. If you realise that it can wait until morning, make a decision to leave it until morning – perhaps write a note to yourself so you know you will not forget.

If you listen to what your brain is telling you, eventually it will give you a break.

*Throughout this article I use the term ‘you’ as a kind of shorthand for those types of mental processing that we understand to be ‘conscious thought’. These are what we tend to understand as ‘our thoughts’ and what constitute ourselves. I use this term to distinguish between these thoughts and the wider processing of the brain.

It is worth remembering that ‘conscious’ thought (which is itself on a sliding scale) constitutes only a portion of the activity of the brain, thus ‘I’ am only part of my brain, rather than my brain being a portion of some greater conscious entity. So when I say that your brain is making ‘you’ think about something, I mean that your brain is attempting to bring a topic into the realm of conscious thought, which I understand to be when the thought processes themselves are the subject of thought processes.

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