We’ve all heard it and we’ve all said it - “there’s no point in worrying.” Okay, the sentiment is well meaning but how accurate is it? In this Sharepost I’m exploring the pros and cons of worrying.
We often describe our less appealing emotions as ‘negative’. Grief, depression, anxiety and worry all fall into this category, but it doesn’t mean they are without purpose. In a previous Sharepost I asked the question, did depression evolve to help us? It’s important to ask such questions as they can help to reveal the psychological and biological processes that influence moods and quite possibly their treatments. But can we say the same for one of our most inescapable emotions - worry?
One of the key characteristics about worry is the way anxieties just turn over and over in the mind, often with no apparent purpose or resolution. Apart from our insides being chewed up, the upshot of worry can be sleepless nights, distraction from other activities, and a focus on negative rather than positive outcomes. Hardly surprising then that worry is universally regarded as a negative emotion.
An obvious question is why are we burdened with worry? Recent research by Jeremy Coplan, MD, professor of psychiatry at New York’s Downstate Medical Center, says there’s an evolutionary link between worry and intelligence. According to Coplan, there is a correlation between high IQ and worry. Previous studies have also noted that excessive worry tends to exist in people with higher and lower intelligence and less so in people of average intelligence. Caplan’s view is that that this association would have had certain evolutionary benefits. Basically, high IQ worriers would be more likely weigh up the potential risks of situations and take fewer chances, thus increasing their chances of survival. Those who suffer with anxiety and have lower intelligence achieve less success in life, which could explain the high/low intelligence-anxiety split.
So much for evolution, but does this mean worrying can actually be good for us today? It seems there’s a balance to be struck. The negative side of excessive worry is that it can be debilitating. There is also a physical toll that can include a higher heart rate and sinus arrhythmia. Chronic worrying can also trigger the stress response, which is known to have a number of health implications.
On the plus side it is quite possibly our concerns over the consequences of certain activities that keeps us healthy. The motivation for many smokers to quit is often based around their concerns over cancer, heart problems and general health issues. The same might be said for diet, voluntary screening, breast self-examination and so on. Clearly there is a dividing line between health concerns and chronic worrying, but they are underpinned by the same basic mechanisms.
The old saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ may be true up to a point, but we shouldn’t regard our capacity to worry as entirely without use or merit.
Hofman, S.G., Moscovitch, D.A., Litz, B.T., Kim, H.J., Davis, L.L. & Pizzagalli, D.A. (2005). The worried mind: autonomic and prefrontal activation during worrying. Emotion, 5(4), 464-75.
SUNY Downstate Medical Center (2012, April 12). Excessive worrying may have co-evolved with intelligence. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 9, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2012/04/120412153018.htm
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.