Why We Worry (and How to Stop)
I had a client, once, who summed up her problems with anxiety in colorfully pithy terms:
If I spent a quarter of the time and energy I spend worrying about work on actually doing work, I’d be retired on a tropical beach drinking mai tais in my hammock every morning instead of being the ball of stress that I am.
I like this description because it goes beyond the obvious problem with worry — feeling chronically stressed and anxious — and gets at the longer-term consequences:
Worry robs us of our lives.
An economist would say that worry has tremendous opportunity cost. Like my client above, when we think about how much time and energy we put into worry, and where that time and energy could have been invested instead, the long-term problem of worry comes into sharp relief.
By definition, worry is an attempt to mentally problem-solve something that either isn’t really a problem or isn’t a problem that’s solvable. And while problem solving is typically helpful in our lives, it’s just a waste of time and energy if we know it can’t actually produce any results.
But I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here.
Most of us understand only too well that worry leads to unnecessarily high levels of stress and anxiety without being actually helpful. And despite the economic jargon above, it’s not too difficult to see how worry is a potentially tragic waste of time and energy to boot.
It’s hard to be genuinely productive and creative (much less happy and content) when we’re worrying all the time.
But if we know worry isn’t good for us, why do we keep doing it? Why is it so hard to not worry?
Assuming we’re not stupid, masochistic, or completely irrational, we must be doing it for some reason. But what reason or upside could justify all the downsides that come from worry?
Strangely, I think our answer lies with… junk food.
Why We Eat Junk Food
Answer the following question as honestly and quickly as possible:
I eat junk food sometimes because…
I’m going to go out on a limb here and take some guesses as to what your answer was not:
- I eat junk food sometimes because… something’s wrong with my brain chemistry.
- I eat junk food sometimes because… I have the junk food gene.
- I eat junk food sometimes because… My dad didn’t love me enough.
- I eat junk food sometimes because… My boss is a jerk and makes me work all the time.
What I’m getting at is, if we’re honest with ourselves, I don’t think any of us would say our brain chemistry, genes, childhood, or even current stressors are the primary reason we eat junk food.
Of course all those factors may have some influence on the act of eating junk food. But if you had to boil it down and give one reason for why we eat junk food from time to time, it’s pretty hard to escape a very simple fact: We eat junk food because it tastes good!
All that processed fat, refined sugar, and salty goodness make the pleasure center of our brain light up like a Christmas tree whenever we bite into a Haagen-Dazs ice bream bar or bag of Doritos or whatever our junk food of choice is.
And to make matters worse, junk food is very available, very cheap, and we feel its effects immediately. Combine all that with deliciousness and you have the four horsemen of the willpower apocalypse.
We worry for the same reason that we eat junk food — because it tastes good!
I promise we’ll get back to worry shortly (yay 😆). But I need to clarify something first.
While it’s true, I think, that we tend to eat junk food primarily because it makes us feel good, it only does so very briefly. And then things get ugly. Fast.
As we’ve all experienced, it doesn’t take much junk food before we quickly turn the corner from gloriously yummy to truly awful — usually some combination of guilt, shame, and frustration mixed up with that gross, stuffed, what-did-I-just-put-into-my-body sensation we get when our gut has to start processing that already highly processed, not-even-a-biochemist-could-pronounce-the-names-of-these-ingredients “food.”
My point with this little gastro diversion is to suggest that we worry for the same reason that we eat junk food — because it tastes good.
Why Worry ‘Tastes’ Good
Now, take everything we’ve just said about junk food and replace that term with worry. I think you’ll find that the analogy fits surprisingly well.
Eating junk food and worrying are both behaviors that are unhelpful — even painful — in the long-term, but still appealing and difficult to avoid because the short-term result is so gratifying.
Despite the pretty terrible long-term consequences, we worry (and eat junk food) because it feel good in the short term.
Wait a second! Worry doesn’t feel good. I feel anxious and stressed when I worry!
I know it seems that way, but hear me out on two points:
1. Timing is everything.
Overall, worry certainly doesn’t feel pleasurable or good; it feels miserable. But when you think about it, scarfing down a king-sized Snickers bar is overall a miserable experience when you factor in how bad your stomach feels for an hour after eating it plus all the guilt and shame you feel for the next 12 hours. It’s actually only enjoyable for the two minutes it takes to wolf it down.
I don’t feel like doing the math, but the pleasure-to-pain ratio of 2 minutes to 12 hours is a pretty small number.
Now, if you pay attention, I think you’ll find a similar process at work with worry. That is, in the very short term, worry does briefly feel good, especially compared to the alternative — doing nothing and just feeling afraid. In other words, worry feels good because it gives us something (rather than nothing) to do. And this makes us feel a little less helpless and out of control.
2. It’s a different type of pleasure.
The second key to understanding why worry actually feels good is to realize that there are two ways to get the sensation of pleasure out feeling good: You can add something good to your experience (eating dessert), or you can remove something bad (urinating when your bladder’s full). Both are pleasurable sensations, but the second is pleasurable via the relief from pain while the first is pleasurable via the addition of something good.
In behavioral science terminology, eating junk food and worrying are both reinforcing behaviors that lead to feeling good, but while junk food is typically a positive reinforcer because it adds something good (pleasure), worry is a negative reinforcer because it removes something bad (helplessness). They’re just two different ways of arriving at the same destination (feeling better).
Just like the body craves calories, the mind craves control.
The pleasure of worry follows this second formula and acts as a negative reinforcer. Specifically, worry feels good because it gives us temporary relief from the discomfort associated with feeling helpless. When faced with a fearful situation that we can’t actually do anything about, we give ourselves the illusion of control (and relief from helplessness) by engaging worry. We may not be able to actually do anything about a problem, but worrying about it makes us feel like we’re doing something.
Just like the body craves calories, the mind craves control. So much, in fact, that we can fool our minds into thinking we’re actually solving a problem by running it over and over and over and over and over and over and over again in our minds. And to make things worse, like junk food, worry also happens to be constantly available, dirt cheap, and instantaneous.
Talk about a set-up.
How to Cure Worry
By this point I hope that I’ve convincingly showed that we worry (and continue to worry) because it very briefly makes us feel good by distracting us from the very uncomfortable feeling of helplessness. Nobody likes feeling anxious, but most of us would rather feel anxious than helpless.
From this perspective, worry is our attempt to out-run helplessness. And while it never works in the long run, we keep trying because it very briefly works in the short term, albeit with the unhappy side effect that we stay stressed and anxious in exchange for the illusion of control.
I suppose this tradeoff is worth it for some. But if you genuinely want to stop worrying so much, there’s really only one way out: Acceptance.
Specifically, in order to stop running away from the feeling of helplessness, we have to train ourselves to be okay with feeling helpless and out of control.
And like any other kind of training, the trick is to start small.
How to Kick the Worry Habit with Mindfulness
The first and most important step is to begin to gain awareness of how worry works in your life.
When you find yourself worrying, try to identify the cause or trigger for the worry and notice how it makes you feel emotionally. Don’t rush into all the mental planning and imaging and hypothetical guessing that makes up worry. Instead, try to focus on your emotions. Just feel them and notice them without thinking about them. Stay in the present instead of jumping into the future.
We must be willing to feel and be with our uncomfortable emotions, especially helplessness.
Unfortunately, for most of us, this is an insanely hard task — to just feel our emotions without thinking about them. It’s uncomfortable and unnatural feeling, and you’ve probably got decades of experience telling you to run away or fix it by thinking more about it (i.e. worrying).
But this is the task. If we want to be able to not engage in worry and rid ourselves of all the anxiety and stress that comes with it, we must be willing to feel and be with our uncomfortable emotions, especially helplessness.
So start small, and be patient. Notice little fragments of worry here and there. Notice yourself being pulled by years of habit to start thinking and worrying. Then choose something different. Choose to stay with the emotion, even if it’s just briefly. Then choose to re-direct your thoughts and behavior elsewhere.
If you want a more structured approach to doing this, mindfulness is a great exercise for learning to accept how we feel and break the habit of worry.
Here are few articles I’ve written on the topic:
We worry for the same reason that we eat junk food — because it feel good. In the short-term, anyway. And it feels good because it distracts us (and gives us relief) from the pain of helplessness. In order to overcome this habit of worry and all the anxiety and suffering that goes along with it, we must be willing to feel helpless and accept it. Mindfulness is a great way to practice that in a more structured way.