Does Worry Have Rewards?

August 25, 2010  |  control, psychology, worry
Worry is a natural function of the human mind, and it has an adaptive function when it allows us to solve difficult problems. But we also know that worry can easily turn from a tool into a tyrant, becoming a bad mental habit, or even an addiction. That’s because there are psychological, brain-based rewards for worrying, even when we worry about things we can’t change.
The first psychological reward of worry is that it gives us an illusion of control. Worrying about something can partially satisfy a sense that we are controlling or doing something about whatever is worrying us. Worrying gives us a sense that we are doing something about a situation even when we can’t take direct action. That’s not a bad thing as long as you worry skillfully, and as long as your “remedy” doesn’t take over your whole life.
When the things we worry about do not come to pass (and most of the time they don’t) we may feel safe, and even powerful. The brain may interpret the connection between the worrying and the fact that the event never materialized as evidence that we are exerting some control over the situation. It’s easy to see how this kind of “successful” worry can lead to an irrational, yet powerful, feeling that we can fend off undesirable events. This unconscious perception may well encourage us to worry even more.
The trouble is that this kind of worry is almost always distressing and uncomfortable, and sometimes it can even become obsessive, taking on a life of its own. Even more troublesome is that when we worry this way, our worries can act as autosuggestions. They can become significant, even dominant, portions of our mental focus throughout the day, taking up more and more mental attention and energy, and creating the sense that life is even more frightening than it really is.
That’s why it’s important to learn to worry more skillfully. If you concentrate on what you want to have happen instead of what you don’t want to have happen, you can still be putting your attention on the matter, and even your intention, so that if your thinking has an effect on the situation, it is even more likely to be a positive effect. You aren’t giving up anything but you are likely to find that this simple practice has significant benefits for your own mood. As long as you are going to worry, why not worry well?

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