For prehistoric humans, worry was a core survival skill. “Going back to the Stone Age, it helped us adapt and survive,” says Dr Kamna Chhibber, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Memorial, Gurugram. “Worry has served as a protective function, helping humans think through problems, plan ahead and gain mastery over their environment. It’s why we’re so good at it.”
It follows, then, that there’s a good way and a bad way to worry. “There are obsessive worriers, and then there are effective ones,” Chhiber says.
So, are you doing it right? A key test is to ask if what you’re worrying about is in the past or the future. If it’s in the past, can you switch from worrying to learning? If it’s the future, what is the likelihood that the problem you are predicting will actually occur?
Worry has a function and that function is pretty straight forward: to draw our attention to the fact that there’s something we should be preparing for or preventing, Kate Sweeny and Michael D Dooley, both professors of psychology at University of California, Riverside, wrote in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, in 2017. Done right, with a focus on problem-solving and learning for better outcomes in the future, worrying can lead to better health, more success and greater well-being, the article states.
So are you doing it right? Here’s a three-point checklist.
Define the problem: Here, it is important to distinguish between worry and fear, solvable and unsolvable. Productive, solvable worries are those you can act on. If the root of your worry is not solvable, try to embrace the uncertainty or the outcome you are facing, says Chhibber.
Focus on solutions: Worry is often mixed with anger, resentment or insecurity. If you can untangle your thoughts from those associated emotions and focus on the problem you have defined, it could help you make important choices at the right time. If you worry about a job interview the right way, you’re likely to prepare for it better. Worry about it the wrong way, meanwhile, and you’ll end up wasting that prep time remembering past interviews that didn’t go well, or imagining the kinds of candidates they might pick over you.
Set a timer: “Worrying the right amount is better than not worrying at all, but you must learn when to let go,” says Chhibber. Schedule a time to think about things. This strategy of postponing worry can help through the rest of your day too. In your allotted worry time, as cave man did, you can then plan perceptively, assess situations and potential threats, prepare for contingencies, and thereby gain a measure of comfort, security and, crucially, control.