On Sunday nights, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by what you’re worried about. It’s not ideal: There’s not much you can do about the things you’re worried about when you’re in bed at 11 p.m. with a laptop open to Netflix on your chest. And sometimes, there’s not much you can do about worrying in general.
That’s because worries can be divided into two groups: outsized concerns and practical things you can attack. It’s normal to worry about things like health, money, or relationships, and some research shows that specific worries can come with a few upsides. In 2017, scientists found that worries can motivate people to protect themselves and prevent problems — if that worrying is occurring at a healthy level. For example, women who are “moderate” worriers, compared to women who report relatively low or high levels of worry, are more likely to get themselves screened for cancer. Here, worry can be a motivation that encourages you to get ready for something like a big test or presentation.
But excessive worrying can be harmful to a person’s physical and mental well-being. It’s also one of the hallmarks of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which affects about 6.8 million American adults. GAD often begins in young adulthood and makes it difficult for people to control their anxieties and stay focused on daily tasks.
“This is what breaks my heart about worry,” Lucas LaFreniere, Ph.D., a clinical psychology researcher, tells me. “It makes you miserable in the present moment to try and prevent misery in the future.”
“For chronic worriers, this process leads them to be continually distressed all their lives in order to avoid later events that never happen. Worry sucks the joy out of the ‘here and now’ to prevent an unrealistic ‘then and there.’”
LaFreniere is a researcher at Pennsylvania State University and the first author of a recent study in Behavior Therapy. LaFreniere, along with Professor Michelle Newman, found that in a survey of 29 people with GAD, 100 percent of them reported worrying over the course of the study. However, 91.4 percent of their worries did not come true.
LaFreniere, who wants to design a smartphone intervention that can lessen worry through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), explains his study tested the idea that CBT works because it helps people gather evidence that their negative expectations aren’t true.
All participants were asked to record, over 10 days and at random times, their worries and the extent to which they caused distress and interfered with their lives. They also estimated the emotional and logical probabilities of those worries coming true. Each night at 10 p.m., they reported how much time they spent thinking on each specific worry throughout the day. Then, 20 days after that period, they reviewed each entry and reported whether any of the worries had become true. If they did, they noted whether those worries turned out as bad, worse, or better than expected.
It turns out the vast majority of these worries never actualized. The team’s analysis showed that when worry predictions never came true, most people tended to worry less in the future. Keeping a record of each worry outcome allowed them to notice the inaccuracy of their predictions, giving them more opportunities to realize distressing worries are unlikely to happen.
“They found that their worries weren’t worth the trouble they caused,” LaFreniere says.
When people with GAD worry, a part of them expects those worries will come true. And LaFreniere notes that some critics of the study were afraid people would believe their concerns weren’t coming true because they worried about them. That idea revolves around the idea that worry is helpful, and that belief helps anxiety disorders endure.
“Yet we actually found that wasn’t the case in our other analyses, published in another paper,” he explains. “Instead, people were realizing their worries were illogical, upsetting, and screwing with their thinking process and happiness, and ultimately were ‘for nothing.’”
LaFreniere anticipated that most people would turn out to have unrealistic worries, based on his own work with worrying clients. Research shows that when CBT works, it’s because it provides clients evidence that their fears aren’t as powerful as they think they are. But LaFreniere was struck by the large differences between the participant’s emotional and logical estimations of how likely their worries were to come true.
“For some clients, their gut feeling estimation would be ‘85 percent likely to come true,’ but their rational thinking would say ‘zero percent likely to come true!” LaFreniere reflects. “That was amazing to me. It shows the nasty power of worrying that has truly gone off the rails.”
That nasty power is certainly powerful. But, as this research shows, some of it can be sucked out if we spend time chronicling how often worries manifest. Your brain may yell at you for ignoring what it sees as an imminent attack, but it’s important to carefully evaluate whether what you’re smelling is smoke with no fire.
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