Why we love to worry, and what to do about it

worryJanet, a woman in one of my mindfulness classes, was feeling nervous. She was afraid of speaking up in class. It was a fairly large group – 20 people – and she felt self-conscious about the prospect of so many eyes on her. But she also worried that by staying silent, she wasn’t taking part enough in the supportive community that was forming. And thinking these thoughts made her worry all the more.

I reassured her that there was no requirement to speak up. Everyone was free to talk or not, to the extent they felt comfortable. Just listening in was perfectly OK. Her presence alone was what mattered. But she couldn’t stop fretting about it.

I think we all have a bit of Janet inside us. We start with a little uneasiness about something, and before we realize it, it grows bigger and bigger. Even when we know it’s irrational, we feel pulled in by it.

What’s going on here?

It was a huge relief to me when I first learned of the phenomenon called negativity bias. In short, our brains are wired to focus more on our bad feelings than the good. It’s a survival instinct that comes from our caveman days. It was far riskier to miss noticing a potentially dangerous situation – like a predator – than a pleasant one – like a beautiful sunny day. So we’re biologically programmed to zero in on anything that seems “not quite right”.

In our modern day, we rarely encounter predators or other threats to life and limb. But our bodies still respond in the same way. We sense something’s wrong, and we zoom right in to hyper-focus on it. But it’s important to realize that we’re not to blame for it.

And thankfully, we don’t have to be victims of our biological natures. If you have a tendency to worry too much, there are ways to tame that beast.

Those of you who practice mindfulness will recognize the method of dealing with these thoughts in the moment they arise. Take a breath, acknowledge the thought, maybe label it, and let it go as best you can. Even a tiny sliver of space between you and the thought can help to take some of the edge off of it.

But I’d like to address a different point today. What do you do when the thoughts keep coming, no matter how much you practice this way? When it seems we make no headway over the long haul against this worry beast?

Because our brains give disproportionately high prominence to negative thoughts, it turns out we need a lot more positive ones to counterbalance them. Research suggests that we need five times more positive thoughts than negative ones in order to reach an emotional equilibrium back at neutral. Five times!

So for example, research found that married couples stay happy together when they have five times more loving interactions than say, snapping at each other.

This magic five-to-one ratio seems to hold true in other areas of life as well (here’s an example). It’s not so much about having huge, heart-soaring joyful moments. It’s about noting many simple, little pleasant ones – like stopping to appreciate a beautiful autumn day – that make a difference.

This makes sense to me. If you take a glass-is-half-empty view on life, having a few big happy occasions – even winning the lottery – doesn’t really turn things around. (And remember, that’s not your fault!) But by being mindful of the many small pleasurable moments in life, we’re gradually training our minds to take on the habit of seeing the positive. Just like with any other mindful change, it’s establishing a new habit that counts.

I, for one, definitely used to be more of a glass-is-half-empty person. To some extent, I think it was trained into me with my previous profession. I was a corporate project manager, and it was my job to worry about all the things that could go wrong so I could plan contingencies for them. Suffering from chronic depression didn’t help. Lots of negative habits had built up there.

So one way to reverse a habit like this is to practice appreciating the good. I admit that for the longest time, I resisted the idea of a “gratitude practice” – i.e. explicitly noting (even writing down) what you appreciate and are grateful for. It sounded too superficial and Pollyanna-ish. (Sure sounds like a glass-is-half-empty viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

But I’ve really come to see the value of doing it. What makes this practice work is to stop and feel deep in my bones why I appreciate something. Not just making happy lists, but reconnecting with a genuine felt sense of appreciation, pleasure, contentment, and the like. I think it’s when we lose touch with that side of us that we’re more susceptible to sliding down the slippery slope of worry. I’m training my mind to see that there’s actually another way to see things that’s not about things going wrong all the time.

So if you’re a worrier, please take heart. I hope you see that it’s just a habit, and habits can be changed. What we focus our attention on, grows — including the positive. Yes, it takes some concerted effort to overcome the weightiness of old habits. But the truth is, they can be overcome.

6 Comments on “Why we love to worry, and what to do about it”

  1. Louisa

    I am a notorious worrier, and my family has learned to support and even encourage it. “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing, because the more you worry, the more things turn out okay.” With my son being a senior in high school and my elderly mother slipping down the rabbit hole of dementia, there’s lots to feed the beast. But I had a *moment* last year, when shoveling a ton of snow from Nemo and listening to some podcast on my ipod. The buddhist scholar being interviewed used the phrase “embrace the full catastrophe”, which I’d never heard before. I remember laughing out loud for some reason, sitting down into the snow-covered step, and feeling amazing gratitude for that particular spot in time. My family was safely inside, and there was soup waiting on the stove. My back hadn’t broken and I was getting all the fresh air and vitamin d I could handle for the moment. I think of that phrase all the time now and laugh when I could be working on my collection of furrows. Thanks for the article Sunada!

  2. sunada

    Hi Louisa,
    I think there’s a big difference between a constructive discernment of problems and solutions vs a destructive kind of worry that doesn’t do much besides eat away at our insides. I assume your family means to encourage the former. Please get rid of the latter!

  3. Richard

    I found the following books very helpful:

    (1) The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, by Julie Norem, PHD
    (2) The Antidote, Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

    As a chronic worrier, I found these books very freeing because I no longer had to fit into the ‘one size fits all’ paradigm of positive thinking espoused by Norman Vincent Peal, Anthony Robbins, etc. Recognizing the positive aspects of anticipating difficulties and avoiding them before they ever occur is a legitimate road to success. I volunteer at a juvenile diversion program for teens who get charged criminally and are looking to avoid a record. We had one high school girl referred to the group who was crippled by panic attacks. The group recommended the Positive Power of Negative Thinking We required her to read it and when we next saw her it was obvious something had changed. Her anxiety was no longer an indictment of her failure to think positive and while still anxious she no longer viewed her anxiety as an enemy.

  4. sunada

    Richard, thank you for the book recommendations. I am not familiar with these, but they sound good! I also sometimes find those “positive thinking” books a bit much, so I’m glad to know of alternatives.


  5. Sunada, a friend just introduced me to your work and I’m SO glad she did. I’ve been wanting to grow my mindfulness practice and am inspired by the workshops you offer. In the meantime I’ve been enjoying your writing. This post in particular was inspiring for me. I loved the depth you add to make a gratitude practice more effective/meaningful by “stop(ing) and feel(ing) deep in my bones why I appreciate something.” Thank you!

  6. sunada

    Thank you Katrina! Your comments are encouraging me to get back into writing again. It’s been a long hiatus, but I’m hoping to encourage it to happen without forcing it. Not sure when it’ll happen, but I’m sure it WILL….

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