Worrying Has Some Benefits After All, Research Shows

Worrying actually can be beneficial. SIphotography/iStock/Thinkstock Worrying actually can be beneficial. SIphotography/iStock/Thinkstock
Worrying actually can be beneficial. SIphotography/iStock/Thinkstock

Calling all worrywarts and anxious Annies — you may not have to, well, worry about your worrying habits.

Kate Sweeny, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, recently published an article in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass that suggests worry provides opportunities for people to take control, avoid aversive events and seek desirable ones.

Worrying, or having consistent, unpleasant thoughts about the future, is in the family of aversive emotions like fear, hatred and disgust. There's no debating that excessive worrying can be detrimental, causing depressed moods and even mental illness. According to the World Health Organization, 615 million people had depression and/or anxiety in 2013, which is a 50 percent increase in a span of just slightly more than 20 years — so the negative effects of worrying are nothing to scoff at.

Sweeny and her co-author, doctoral candidate Michael D. Dooley, don't discount or advocate for excessive worry. But they did find that when channeled the right way, worry can serve as a motivator, encouraging preventive and productive behavior. Too much and too little worry can decrease motivation, but according to Sweeny's analysis, "the right amount of worry can motivate without paralyzing." Worry can also act as an emotional buffer, helping the worrier prepare for the worst and brace for impact. This way, the stressor is no longer on the sidelines, but out front, in an effort of proactive coping (facing a feared outcome head-on).

Prior studies by Sweeny and other researchers have explored worry's relation to preventive behavior. For instance, feelings of worry about skin cancer predicted sunscreen use in one study, and displaying harmful physical side effects of cigarettes through text and images instilled more worry and put a damper on smoking for young smokers and nonsmokers. Think of motivation as worry's cheerleader, jumping up in hopes of drawing a person to goal-directed actions.

The researchers suggest worriers use mindfulness to acknowledge their feelings and evaluate whether worry serves a useful purpose in that deciding moment. Even though worry may not be beneficial for everyone, as the researchers note, there is good evidence that dwelling on the future and anticipating negative outcomes can promote preparedness and help manage emotions.