Productive vs. Unproductive Worry
Author: Katie Leoni, Psy.D.
Do you view uncertainty and lack of control as an unpleasant experience and something that should be avoided? If so, you are not alone and you may perceive worrying to be productive and useful. People who worry excessively tend to regularly overestimate risk. You may think that if you worry enough then you have more perceived control over the situation. For instance, if you are able to predict every worst-case scenario then you will be fully prepared for that situation and there will be no surprises. You feel in control. Then, when the worst-case scenario does not happen, you attribute it to the fact that you worried about it beforehand and thus, the worry is reinforced. It’s kind of like, “Oh it didn’t happen because I worried about it” when in reality, if something catastrophic is going to happen, it is going to happen regardless of whether you worry or not. The fear is if you stop worrying, the bad thing that you’re worrying about will happen/is likely to happen because now you are not prepared for it.
Let’s look at an example of unproductive worry. Say you are on an airplane and for a majority of the flight you are in your seat worrying about how much training the pilot has, has long the pilot has been flying that day, and stating to yourself “please don’t crash” over and over etc. You spend your time thinking about the plane not crashing and going over reasons why. As a result, you feel anxious and unsettled the entire flight and once you land, you feel a sense of relief. You make a direct link between your worrying and the plane landing safely. What is the effect of this worry on you during this flight? You feel anxious, worried, possibly scared, and you’re spending the whole flight worrying as opposed to being in the present moment.
On the other hand, if you think the opposite during the flight, that the plane will crash, then once the plane lands you realize that just because you were thinking about the plane crashing doesn’t mean that it certainly will.
Worry is not an all or nothing concept. Of course, sometimes worry can be helpful and productive. It’s a natural response to your anticipation of future problems. For example, if you have a flight to catch, it makes sense that you’d be worried a little bit about traffic and making it on time to the airport. You may check the traffic in real time and this results in real change because you might have to leave earlier to get there on time. What is the effect of this worry on you? You problem solve effectively and are not late.
You can worry all the time and ask questions but we just don’t have that kind of control over situations or events. Naturally the question then becomes, what can I do to change this? Here are some suggestions:
If you feel like your worry has been negatively impacting your life and/or you’d like to learn more ways to help manage your anxiety and to tolerate uncertainty, please contact us for a free phone consultation.
Diana Gordon, Psy.D., Kari Kagan Psy.D., and Katie Leoni, Psy.D.
Drs. Gordon, Kagan, and Leoni practice psychotherapy primarily via telehealth. Their areas of expertise include anxiety, sleep, stress, depression, maternal mental health, and addiction. They blog about these topics to provide research-based information about common problems and strategies to help manage them.