Fear Not, Worrywarts, There’s An Upside To Those Thoughts

4:06 minutes

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What keeps you up at night? Whether it’s health or finances, or general existential ponderings, there’s plenty in life to fret about. So University of California-Riverside psychologist Katherine Sweeny recently took a look at what the research reveals about worry and how the emotional experience affects our health and well-being. It turns out, she says, there’s a positive side to worrying: it can motivate us and help us prepare for negative events. Not only that, but having no worries can be worse for us than having a moderate few.

[Can’t stop worrying? Blame it on your habenula.]

Segment Guests

Kate Sweeny

Kate Sweeny is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of California-Riverside in Riverside, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing. Because every story has a flip side, what keeps you up at night? Is it your finances, your job, your health? Maybe you’re worried, because you’re still awake worrying.

Well, whatever it is that you’re fretting about, there’s a good bit of good news. Worrying can be beneficial under certain circumstances. Dr. Kate Sweeney is here to explain. She’s associate professor of psychology at the UC Riverside and co-author of new research on the upside of worrying. Welcome to Science Friday.

KATE SWEENY: Hi, Ira, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: This might be sort of more of a bad thing, good thing. Worrying too much is still bad for us, right?

KATE SWEENY: Yeah, that’s right. So I’m sure no one will be particularly surprised to hear that most people find worrying to be really unpleasant. And in fact, it has some pretty serious downsides that can lead to a depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep disruption, even problems with our physical health.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so we know that. But you’re also saying it can be good. How does that work?

KATE SWEENY: That’s right. You know, after that big list, it’s surprising that worrying can do anything good for us at all. But it actually serves a few functions.

So I think the most important function that worry serves is that it acts as a motivator. It essentially tells us there is something we should be doing. And it gives us the motivation to do it.

So for example, there have been studies showing that people who worry about getting in a car accident are more likely to wear their seat belts. People who worry about getting skin cancer are more likely to wear sunscreen. So these are some pretty important benefits for our health.

And the other way that worry can help us is that it’s actually so unpleasant that it makes any other emotional experience feel kind of not so bad in contrast. So for example, I’ve done studies with law graduates who are waiting to find out if they passed the bar exam. And the ones who worry a lot while they’re waiting feel not so bad when they fail. And they feel extra great when they pass.

IRA FLATOW: So how can I turn my worry into more productive– kind of, let’s say, I’m the type of person who lays awake at night sweating about today’s show or the transportation system breaking down, or something like that?

KATE SWEENY: Yes, so much to worry about. Well, the key I think is to kind of make sure that worry is actually doing you the favors that I just described, instead of overwhelming you. So for example, when I worry– and I am a pro-level worrier there’s a reason I studied this– I kind of go through a mental checklist.

Is there anything I could be doing to make sure that bad outcomes don’t come my way and even if they do that I might be a little bit more prepared for them? And so if there’s nothing I can be doing, if the answer to that checklist is, nope, I’ve done everything I possibly can, all I can really try to do is to distract myself, try to keep my worry at a manageable level. And failing that, at least, I know that I’ll feel better about whatever happens, because at least I don’t have to worry anymore.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s the– in theory, that’s it. Are there people who don’t worry at all about anything?

KATE SWEENY: I would love to meet one. I don’t think so. Probably not people who don’t worry at all that. But there are some people I think who worry relatively little and maybe not quite enough.

They’re so laid back that they might not take preventive action to make sure that things go well. They may not plan fully. And worse, they might be really caught off guard if bad things do come their way, which no one is immune to bad news.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s good news about worrying. But I think worry warts are going to worry about not worrying if they don’t worry?

KATE SWEENY: I think those of us who worry and know that we’re pretty good at it and probably won’t spend too much time worrying about our worry.

IRA FLATOW: OK. So I’m with you, Dr. Sweeney. I’m one of those worriers, who I need something to worry about.

KATE SWEENY: We’ll take heart.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll join together. Kate Sweeney associate professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

We’re going to take a break and after the break, the fossil find that has heads scratching at could humans have arrived in North America 100 years earlier than we thought? Some answers to your questions after the break.

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