Don’t picture an elephant. Too late? I figured. Because it's the first thing we do when someone says that. It's similar to when someone tells me not to worry about something. It almost makes me more anxious. If I could change the scene in my brain to a sunny vineyard in Sonoma at will, why on earth would I keep running through potential worst-case scenarios?
After all, life gives us a lot to worry about. Maybe more now than ever. And while there are countless quotes and proverbs discouraging us from worrying, maybe it's not as bad as people like to make it out to be. If you're a moderate worrier, recent studies have shown that you live longer thanks to an uptake of "health-promoting behaviors," like getting regular cancer screenings or resolving to kick bad habits like smoking.
"Worry is really good for alerting us to the fact that there's something we might need to be paying attention to and maybe do something about it," says Kate Sweeney, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, who studied how worrying can act as a good motivator. "If someone is completely out of touch with the possibility that their behavior is putting them at risk," she says, "there's a lot of evidence that suggests they are probably harming themselves more by not worrying."
So, it seems, ignorance may be bliss, but such unawareness isn't doing you much good. You don't want to worry yourself sick over things you can't change, but going through all the possible outcomes is a defense mechanism that can prepare you for the future. That's why other studies have found that worriers tend to be more successful problem-solvers and higher performers both at work and in school. They're also more proactive and informed when it comes to handling stressful events that life throws their way.
It makes sense. Often, when I'm worried about something, I eventually come up with a solution to help alleviate my concerns. And if I wasn't worried, life would eventually melt into a placid sea of complacency.
So why does worrying get such a bad rap? Probably because it so often feels kind of shitty. And we can't do much to stop the anxiety once it starts. But there's an upside to this as well. Because worrying is a generally unpleasant experience, Sweeney says that it actually makes other bad experiences feel better in comparison.
So if the cost of rational worrying is a small amount of unease in exchange for being more proactive about your health and more productive in the face of the unknown, that seems like a pretty fair price to me.
When you worry about one thing, you tend to ignore other things, which subconsciously lets you know what's most important to you.