Good news for worrywarts everywhere: Your fretting and fussing can actually have health benefits, according to a new scientific paper. Not only can worrying serve as an emotional buffer against worst-case scenarios, say researchers, but it can also be a strong motivator for proactive, healthy behaviors.
The article, published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, also argues that people who worry a lot may perform better in school or at work, and that they engage in more successful problem solving. “I think there’s a lack of understanding when people are made to feel bad for worrying, or told to ‘just stop worrying about it,’” says author Kate Sweeny, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
While worrying generally gets a bad rap, it does make sense that the habit could be protective: Naturally anxious people might be expected to follow health and safety advice to a T, like wearing their seatbelts, applying sunscreen every few hours, and keeping up-to-date with doctor’s appointments and screenings, for example.
And that’s partially correct, says Sweeny, although the truth is more nuanced: In one study referenced in her article, women who reported moderate amounts of worry—compared to those with relatively low or high levels of worry—were the most likely to get screened for cancer. “It seems that both too much and too little worry can interfere with motivation,” she says, “but the right amount of worry can motivate without paralyzing.”
In fact, Sweeny suggests a three-step explanation for worry’s motivating effects: First, it serves as a cue that a situation requires action. Second, it keeps that situation at the front of people’s minds. And third, the unpleasant feeling prompts them to do something about it, in order to feel better.
Worrying about a future outcome can also help people brace for bad news, or make good news seem even better by comparison, Sweeny writes. That may be why even optimists tend to expect the worst about uncertain news, as her previous research has found.
Sweeny stresses, however, that extreme worrying is still harmful to one’s health; rumination and repetitive thoughts have been associated with depressed mood, poor physical health, and even mental illness.
She doesn’t advocate for excessive worrying, but she does hope to provide reassurance to the occasional worrier, the nitpicky planner, and the overly prepared person who has to mentally run though every detail of a scenario while others simply kick back and relax.
“I think the primary message is that when you’re feeling worried, take a minute to think about whether those thoughts are productive—maybe there are things you should be doing and preparing for to prevent bad things from happening—and in that case it’s a good thing,” she says. (If you’ve done all that and you’re still stressed out, then maybe try to distract yourself and think about something else.)
Sweeny also adds that some people clearly don’t worry enough about certain things, like what could happen to them if they engage in unsafe or unhealthy behaviors. “If you find yourself not caring about those things, it’s worth asking yourself why you’re downplaying those risks,” she says. “In those cases, worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”