If you worry things will go wrong, you’ll work harder for the right resolution. (Getty Images)
Worrying gets an understandably bad rap. But new research has found the practice can actually be good for you — in moderation.
A study recently published in the journal Emotion found that worrying while waiting to learn the results of something important can actually help people cope with the outcome.
For the study, researchers followed 230 law students waiting for the results of their bar exam. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires on their anxiety levels before taking the exam and every two weeks during the four-month waiting period until they received their results. They were also asked how they felt after they received their results.
Researchers discovered two things: First, participants were terrible at coping with their anxiety over the results. And second, those who were anxious, ruminating, and pessimistic during the waiting period responded more productively to bad news about their results and were more joyful to good news about their results than their less-worried peers.
“How we feel about things that happen to us depends in part on what we expected,” lead study author Kate Sweeny, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, explains to Yahoo Health. “If we expect the worst, even a mediocre outcome feels pretty good in comparison; if we expect the best, even a decent outcome feels disappointing.”
Licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, tells Yahoo Health that worrying a little can actually be good for us. “A moderate amount of anxiety and stress actually helps us function at our best,” she says.
Worrying is actually the first step in the problem-solving process, Reid Wilson, PhD, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and author of Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks, tells Yahoo Health. Pessimism, he adds, can help us think about how we might cope if we get bad news.
“That allows us to ‘set it down’ for a while and turn our attention to our other tasks of living,” he says. “Then, in the days just before we are to find out that possible bad news, we may spend some of our mental time actively rehearsing our coping strategies.” While that can be somewhat distressing, he says it can also help people feel prepared if they do actually receive bad news.
Of course, there is a downside of worrying — especially when you worry too much. When it interferes with sleeping, eating, or daily functioning, it’s beyond the point of being helpful, Clark says.
We can even worry about the fact that we’re worrying, which doesn’t help either. “Sometimes people become anxious and secondarily become afraid of their anxiety,” Clark says. “This worry about worry can escalate anxiety into unhelpful panic type of reactions.” However, she says, worrying is a natural emotion, and one that we should simply accept on occasion.
The takeaway? It’s OK to let yourself worry … a little.
“If you find it hard to wait for uncertain news, you’re in very good company,” says Sweeny. “But take heart, because you’re preparing yourself well for the moment of truth.”