As someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, I sometimes find it difficult to remember that worrying has a function. When we spot problems and become concerned about them, we find the motivation to solve them. I dream about a life free from worry – weirdly, the fantasy looks a lot like the holiday advert where the woman in the sequinned dress is presented with an array of ice-cream sundaes – but, deep down, I know that if I never worried about anything, there’s a chance that I’d be unemployed, homeless and possibly toothless, as I only bother with dental hygiene because I’m terrified of the consequences of skipping it. Worrying makes me get stuff done.
However, the trouble with anxiety is that it makes me worry long after the worrying has been useful. Realistically, I’d like to learn to worry efficiently. I could briefly fret, resolve the issue and then relax, instead of working myself into a state of catatonia as I let my worries take me to an imaginary land where everyone I love has died and my house has burned down. So I’m excited about a new study that has been published in the journal Biological Psychology, which looks at the difference between purposeful worrying and the problematic kind. In BPS Research Digest, Christian Jarrett explains that “problem worriers tend to have a kind of perfectionist approach”, which means that once they start, they can’t stop as long as they are “working through every eventuality and solving every problem”.
I feel as though Jarrett might have opened my skull and looked at my brain. I take a “search and destroy” approach to worrying, endlessly scanning my mind and environment for anything that might be a cause for concern. However, my attempts to deal with any problems that I discover often makes everything worse. Have you ever spotted a tiny, stubborn blackhead and squeezed it so determinedly that you’ve taken an entire layer of skin off your chin? That’s how I approach a worry and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t make the problem go away – it just becomes bigger and more painful.
I like the idea of working out when I’ve had enough of worrying, and reminding myself that I’m in charge of what I worry about, instead of letting the worries control me
So, science says I worry obsessively because I’m a perfectionist. That sounds impressive, but it’s making me miserable. Can I make it stop? Jarrett says: “Thinking about the idea of stopping worrying when you’ve had enough of it, rather than when the worrying is somehow ‘finished’ or ‘complete’, could be beneficial. Earlier research has shown that merely learning about the cognitive and emotional factors that feed excessive worry can help some people.” Any fellow obsessive worriers will know that “Don’t worry” is one of the most irritating, unhelpful expressions in the English language. If it was as easy as simply stopping, I wouldn’t be worrying compulsively in the first place.
However, I like the idea of working out when I’ve had enough of worrying, and reminding myself that I’m in charge of what I worry about, instead of letting the worries control me. Jarrett’s words made me think of eating a meal and deciding to stop when I’m hungry, instead of carrying on when I’m bloated and in pain, just because there is still food on the table. To extend the metaphor, I can always cover the worries in clingfilm, wait a day and work out whether there is any point in reheating them, or decide to throw them out.
When I worry, I get distracted from problem-solving because low self-esteem and anxiety combine in my head, like a crowd of football supporters, singing, “You’re SHIT! And you know you are!” I’m not as concerned about the issue that’s generating worry as I am about my own ineptitude and how I’ll probably fail to do the right thing. I have a deeply critical inner voice. My attempts to silence it with psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy haven’t been entirely successful, but I have managed to introduce a second voice. This is the slightly more helpful, sensible stream of thoughts that challenge the first voice. It says: “You’ve dealt with a problem like this before; you can probably do it again,” and “The probability of this even happening is infinitesimal – are you sure you want to spend so much energy on it?” If I can harness these helpful thoughts, perhaps I can use them as a prompt to check in with myself, and ask if I’m getting anything out of worrying, or if it’s time to stop and do something else.
To some extent, anxiety is a natural response to threat. At the moment, we’re surrounded by it, as the global news cycle produces an endless source of worries and things to be concerned about. If we let our worries spiral, we’ll struggle to find the energy to fight for change. But if we can work on our worrying, and tell ourselves that it’s OK to stop doing it when it starts to feel bad, we can get stuff done.