Why do we worry?

If you find yourself worrying away about something, blame your brain’s basic survival instinct. Humans are evolutionarily hardwired to detect danger and respond appropriately. That’s what happens when a species spends its infancy avoiding various predators. Worry is located in the primitive and emotional parts of your brain.

Worrying is part of the survival strategy of these two areas of the brain. By making sure you’re always on high alert, they keep you ready to fight for your life or flee danger. That obviously makes a lot of sense if you’re battling for survival out on the savannah. In today’s world, however, you’re much less likely to encounter predators than a stressful board meeting.

But the primitive and emotional brains just aren’t very good at telling the difference between the two. As far as they’re concerned, one is just as dangerous as the other, which is why the human body overreacts to everyday events. In other words, these brains are serial worriers.

The rational brain, by contrast, helps keep worries in check. Located in the higher brain – or neocortex – it’s responsible for problem-solving, memory and other complex tasks. It’s this part of the brain that lets you accurately assess the world around you and make sound decisions on the basis of that information.

You can train yourself to tap into the rational brain when your worries are spiraling out of control. Think back to the last time you jumped to conclusions or overreacted, and ask yourself what someone who was more rational would’ve done.

Here’s a technique. It’s all about increasing your self-awareness. Essentially, it’s a way of tracking a worry down to its source. Here’s how you do it: Ask yourself “Where is my worry coming from?” Next, sort your worry into one of three categories – situational, anticipatory or residual stress.

Situational stress is a form of anxiety related to what’s happening in the present. That could be anything from your health to a conflict with your spouse or coworker. Then there’s anticipatory stress: This is the anxiety you feel when you’re thinking about the future. An upcoming exam, presentation or interview are all likely to trigger it. Residual stress pertains to the past. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a good example of a particularly severe form of residual stress.

So what does reflecting on the nature of your worry actually achieve? Well, categorizing your worries allows you to better scrutinize the source of your stress. It short-circuits mindless anxiety and puts you in a position to calmly ask yourself “Why do I feel this way?”

Once you start doing that, you’ll get a better sense of the kinds of things that trouble you most. That’s an important first step. Awareness means you’re already halfway to tackling the source of your anxiety.

First, the good news. If you’ve made it this far, you’re well on your way to confronting your worries head on!

Let’s start by sorting out the worries which are simply too hysterical to entertain. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to knuckle down and start doing something about the remaining worries.

The sorting process is all about reflecting on the root cause of individual worries. That means asking whether they’re historical, hysterical or helpful.

Historical worries are a form of anxiety that mirror your experiences in the past. Say you were mugged while walking home one night. If you find yourself worrying as you walk down a dark street, chances are that the prior experience is the cause of your worry.

Pretty rational, right? Hysterical worry is the exact opposite – it’s deeply irrational. It’s the kind of anxiety that makes you fret about shark attacks, plane crashes or contracting an STD from a public toilet.

Finally, there’s helpful worry – a form of rational behavior. This kind of worry is caused by reflecting on a real problem, such as a performance review at work or an end-of-year thesis presentation at university.

Now you’ve sorted your worries into separate categories, it’s time to ask what you can do about them.

If you’re preoccupied by a historical worry, your best bet is to seek emotional support and move on.

Childhood trauma and failed relationships can leave deep emotional scars. In serious cases like these, it’s advisable to turn to a therapist, counselor, friend or colleague. Whoever you choose, the most important thing is to find an outlet for your emotions.

Letting your feelings out doesn’t just make you feel better, it also helps provide clarity about the source of the anxiety that’s been bugging you. More importantly, it sets you up to let go of old grudges and devote your attention to the future.

What about hysterical worry? The key here is to contextualize your anxiety by looking at relevant statistics and interrupting your own thought process.

You can always look up the data. The chances of being mauled by a shark – or struck by lightning, murdered by an intruder or contracting an STD from a public toilet – are vanishingly small.

You can also challenge your own thought processes by asking yourself how often your predictions have come true. Not that often? Perhaps it’s best to put the crystal ball away and free up some headspace for more important matters!

If you think the world is beyond your control, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. You’re actually much more influential than you give yourself credit for!

That doesn’t mean you can control everything, of course. The key is to identify the outcomes you do have some influence over and focus your energies there.

Take it from Stephen R. Covey, the author of the influential book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

In his book, Covey notes that everyone has worries. Some people worry about their health, others about work, relationships or the weather. The problem isn’t necessarily worrying, but the fact that so many people fret about things they can’t do anything about.

Think of the difference between worrying about a terrorist attack and a work presentation: you can affect the latter by working hard and preparing yourself properly, but there’s nothing you can do about the former

In other words, some worries can be addressed while others can’t.

If you want to take action, it’s a good idea to start by assessing the nature of your helpful worries. Use a sliding scale of zero to ten – zero means you have no control whatsoever, while ten means you’re fully capable of determining the outcome.

Once you’ve done that, you can start ranking your worries. Focus your time and energy on solving the ones which rank highest in terms of your influence over them.

Assessing how much control you have is important because attitude is a huge factor. The more influence you perceive yourself as having, the more likely you are to take action. It showed that optimistic people who regularly overestimate their influence are less likely to suffer from depression than those with a more realistic view.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with thinking the glass is half-full. What’s even better is getting out there and filling the rest up yourself!

Check out my related post: What is the wisdom of life?

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