Do you think worrying is useful? Think again

Worried-looking woman lying in bed with white sheet covering bottom half of face
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Do you think worrying is useful? Is the stress is causes really worth it? Many people think so, but they often don’t realise there are better ways to deal with issues. Learn from the experience of others, and see how unhelpful your beliefs about worry may be.

Sarah thinks worrying is useful

Let’s look at Sarah’s experience.

Sarah works hard as a part-time primary teacher. She’s always been a worrier, even as a child, and has always felt responsible for others.

After she had her own children, she worried about them constantly. When they were asleep, she hovered over them to check their breathing. She took them to the doctor for every ache, pain or sniffle.

Sarah couldn’t bear the thought that something bad would happen to them. In her mind, worrying about their health and safety helped prevent these terrible things.

Rules to keep them safe

Unfortunately, Sarah couldn’t tell if a problem was serious or not. All she could see was disaster looming from every direction. So Sarah made up rules to cover everything that could possibly happen.

Her children had to watch out for kidnappers, and take their vitamins. They had to be polite to everyone, and save up for their old age. They had to stay out of the rain, and never walk home with their friends from school. 

Sarah thought her rules would stop bad things happening.   

Fears of disaster

Yet some things that Sarah worried about weren’t really a problem at all. It was just that her imagination painted them as being scary. She couldn’t seem to tell the difference between things that were trivial, and things that were more serious. Her mind always went to the worst-case scenario. And that led to even more worry. 

So Sarah worried that if her children were rude once, they’d be ostracised. If they got wet, they’d get sick and die. Everything would turn out to be the worst it possibly could be.

Is Sarah a worrier?

But Sarah doesn’t view herself as a worrier. She says that by worrying, she’s doing her duty to protect her family. Then her children will never have to face any problems in life. She’s certain that worrying is useful. 

In her book, that’s what good parents do. In fact, she wishes someone had done the same for her. 

Her family’s opinion

However, Sarah’s family see her worries from another angle. The three children felt hemmed in by Sarah’s rules when they were young. All they remember is her telling them what to do all the time. They felt this stopped them learning to look after themselves as quickly as they should have.

Martin

Sarah’s youngest, Martin, left home at 17. He found Sarah’s constant predictions of disasters upsetting. He interpreted her seeming need to control them all as being bossy. Now he doesn’t see much of her, as he wants to avoid her constant questions about what he’s doing. 

The others are more tolerant of Sarah’s worrying. They try to calm her down when she frets, but it doesn’t do much good. In her book, trouble will start as soon as she stops worrying.   

Sarah can’t see what her family sees

Sarah would be crushed if she knew how her family really feels. In her mind, she spends her life making theirs run smoothly.

However Martin is right – in a way.

Sarah does want to control everyone’s lives. But she doesn’t want control for control’s sake. She wants control to make sure that everyone is safe, and nothing goes wrong. 

Sarah fears they won’t cope

Sarah sees life as hard and the world as harsh. In fact, she’s never been confident that she’d cope if something went wrong. So she assumes her children will also be shattered if things go wrong.

That’s why she’s determined to shield them. She thinks worrying is useful because it stops bad things happening. 

And she’s desperate to save her children from negative emotions, like sadness, fear, discomfort, regret or frustration.

However she’s never really defined what “not coping” means. She has a vague picture of herself “breaking down,” and “going mad.” It’s too scary to think about, so she avoids it at all costs.

And her constant scanning for potential problems is finally taking its toll.

Impact on Sarah

Constant worry makes Sarah constantly irritable and on edge. She can’t have fun, or let herself go to do activities that could give joy and happiness. All she can see are the things that could go wrong.

Sarah’s grip on worry is too tight

Sadly, Sarah hasn’t realised this isn’t how most people live.

She doesn’t realise most of her worrying has been in vain. Most of the time, the terrible things she’s imagined haven’t happened.

If she knew how to, she could let go of her worries. Then, she could make sensible plans for the future, and relax and focus on living instead of worrying.

But she doesn’t realise she’s made a choice to worry.

What makes Sarah think worrying is useful?

Sarah would justify all her worrying by saying things like:

1 If I don’t worry, no one else will.
2 You’re irresponsible if you don’t worry.
3 Worrying shows I care.
4 Worrying helps protect my family’s health and welfare.
5 Worrying prevents problems in the future.
6 Worrying helped me teach my children to cope with the world.

Perceived “benefits” of worrying

These statements show Sarah thinks worrying is useful. She believes it helps protect her family. It makes her feel she’s a good mother and partner. Therefore, worry seems to have lots of “benefits,” as it seems to help her cope with life, and reduce her anxiety.

In a way, she thinks worry can change whether bad things happen or not. But has her worrying actually worked the way she thought it would?

Worry tricks you

Yes, worry may temporarily lower your anxiety. You think you’ve done something about a problem by worrying. But when you sit back and analyse it – what have you achieved?

Have you taken any concrete steps to solve the problem? Did you face up to issues and reduce or eliminate them? Did you manage to accept the situation without undue distress?

If not, you haven’t really done anything. Worry tricks you into believing you’ve done something, when you haven’t.

Worry stifles decisive action

Sarah couldn’t decide what to do a lot of the time. Mostly she was distracted trying to deal with her emotions. Any action she took was a knee-jerk, spur of the moment response. It wasn’t a planned strategy to solve the problem.

So worrying stopped her taking any helpful action. 

No assessment of worry’s “value”

Sarah also never assessed if worry actually worked for her. She simply lurched from worry to worry, overwhelmed and out of control.

So the same problems kept rearing up all the time. Of course, this reinforced her view that life was tough. So she felt even more justified in worrying, and trying to control everything.

Are Sarah’s beliefs true?

Sadly, Sarah never questioned her beliefs. She never thought to check if she was, in fact, protecting her children. She simply trusted that worry was useful in helping cope with life’s problems.   

But did worrying actually protect her family? Did it make her children more confident, and able to cope with life’s ups and downs? Did it prevent problems for her children or husband in the future?

Sadly not, as we’ll see in the next article.

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