Is worrying good for anything?
The answer is yes: It is good for… something. But it’s probably not the thing you think.
If you’re a worrier, read on. The science might just change how much you worry — or at the very least, it might make you feel a little less bad.
The psychological literature describes worry as a negative and “relatively uncontrollable” action. But worry has a goal. Our brains are trying to do something important:
In other words, worry is trying to solve a problem before it actually happens — only you can’t solve it because you can’t know which way it’s going to turn out.
This is so relatable. Everyone struggles against it in some way: We may be trying to solve problems that have no clear solution, or to build something despite not having all the materials. This leads to a kind of mental feedback loop: We search for an answer, come up short, and then, because we don’t have an answer, we go searching for the answer some more.
Soon our brains are like the iOS spinning pinwheel of death.
So, back to the big question: What is this for? Is worrying good for anything?
That is worry's benefit: It softens the emotional blow. If you are worried about something going wrong, then you won’t feel as bad when it does — because you’ve set your expectations appropriately.
But the tradeoff is severe. In exchange for that emotional cushion, she said, excessive worrying can lead "to relationship problems, impaired work and school performance, and even long-term medical consequences from carrying around all that stress."
Most intriguingly, worry also results in the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of helping us solve problems, it actually harms our ability to solve problems.
To explore this, Professor Llera ran a study. She had participants try to solve a real-life problem, and then tracked their performance based on whether they worried about the problem or looked at it objectively. The answer:
And it gets even worse: The people who worried about the problem had less intention to actually solve it.
Let’s put it plainly: Worrying may help you cope with negative outcomes, but it does not help you solve problems, and it might actually hurt your ability to solve problems. And it creates more problems.
Now, what are we supposed to do with that information?
Professor Llera offers this as a solution: “You can try to trust in your ability to handle negative events IF AND WHEN they happen… You might even be better at solving problems, and more open-minded about trying out your solutions, if you try to refrain from worrying about them. Plus, it will be easier to return to a more pleasant emotional state if you're more used to being there.”
That’s right: If you want to solve problems, then spend your energy solving problems — and worry less about the ones you cannot solve. Action over worry.
Of course, this would be perfect advice if we were robots with a simple on/off "worry" switch. And yet, of course, we are not: We are imperfect, complicated humans, and we cannot always control how we feel.
So here’s my totally non-scientific advice, based on my own way of managing the things that worry me, which you should take for whatever it's worth to you:
You may not be able to stop yourself from worrying, but you can at least prove to yourself that action has positive results. If something concerns you, engage in actualities as much as possible. What else can you learn? What other data can you gather? What ways can you engage more deeply with the problem?
Say you’re trying to figure out how much to let your kid use TikTok, or whether you need to use it with them yourself. Instead of worrying about how a constant stream of videos is going to hijack your child’s brain, just try the thing. Monitor how the trial goes. If you see small problems, think about how to fix them. If you see big problems, make a bigger change.
Now you’ve done a productive test with actual results that can inform future decisions — and you haven’t wasted as much energy fretting about something beyond your grasp.
Over time, you'll teach yourself that your actions are more powerful than your worries.
Then the pinwheel of death finally disappears, and your brain can move on. Maybe.