Worry seems rewarding but it’s magical thinking

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Nobody likes how worry makes you feel – panicky, tense and out of control. So why do we keep worrying? Part of the answer is, that in a peculiar way, worry seems rewarding. Weird, right? Keep reading to find out how this works.

We’re easily conditioned by rewards

Remember Pavlov’s dogs? They were taught to salivate at the sound of a bell.

Originally the sound was always linked to something rewarding – food. Later, even when they weren’t given food, the dogs still salivated when they heard the bell. They’d been conditioned to respond to the bell, because it reminded them of a reward.

Now we’ve all been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs in many ways.

Think of when you see a commercial for pizza on TV. Without thinking, you grab your phone and put in an order. The commercial triggers thoughts of the rewards you’ll get if you order the pizza:

– yummy tasting food

– better mood (at least for a short time)

– less hunger and / or boredom.

Your brain and body are primed to want these rewards, so you react to make it happen.

There are lots of different types of conditioning. However, we’ll only deal with the basics here.

You do what is rewarding

Everyone likes activities that make them feel good, or take away negative feelings. We therefore associate these activities with feeling rewarded in some way.

For example, if you’re praised for an achievement, you may gain positive feelings like: 

– pride in yourself

– pleasure or enjoyment

– happiness, satisfaction or fulfilment.

The same praise may have also reduced negative feelings or states like:

– low self-esteem

– feeling overlooked

– dissatisfaction and frustration

– anger and annoyance

– sadness.

Now you’ll probably strive to achieve more praise in future, since this was so rewarding for you.

So people generally do more of things that make them feel good, and less of things that make them feel bad.

For example, you stop talking to someone who is rude. Normally, you’d also stop eating something that tastes very bitter.

Not doing these activities any more removes something unpleasant from your life. 

How does worry fit this theory?

So how is all this relevant to worry?

Because when you think of worry, there’s a contradiction here.

Worry makes you feel bad. So it seems logical that you’d stop worrying, because this would reward you. You’d take away some awful feelings, and make your life more enjoyable. You’d also free up your mental space for more interesting things.

But worriers keep worrying regardless. So why don’t they stop?

The point is, if it were that easy, many worriers would stop. So something else must be keeping the worry going.

Other factors we haven’t looked at must also be important.

What keeps worry going?

Think about the following:

You will talk to that rude colleague – if he’s got information you need.

You will take bitter medicine – if it will help you get better.

So you’ll do something unpleasant, if there’s a benefit.

That means if you keep worrying, there must be a perceived benefit for you. Note that this isn’t usually done consciously. Most worriers don’t see any benefit until they think about it carefully.

Apparent rewards of worry

However the following are probably true:

Every behaviour serves a purpose, even if it’s trivial.

So there’s always some purpose to worry.

Something about worry is seen as helpful or good – in other words, as rewarding.

These rewards may be indirect, or at least, not obvious.

So somehow, worriers must believe there are positives about worrying. If this is true, it could explain why worriers keep worrying.

Worry seems rewarding

The challenge is to learn what worriers believe about worry. Then we might uncover the benefits they believe worry produces.

That might tell us why worriers keep worrying.

Unconscious gains

Now just to be clear: any gains from worrying are unintended. Worriers usually don’t think about the indirect benefits of worry. It’s largely out of their conscious awareness.

Beliefs about worry

So what beliefs do worriers have about worrying? Worriers often will say things like:

1 Worrying helps me solve problems.

2 Worrying helps me keep myself or others safe.

3 If I don’t worry about x, y, or z, who will?

4 Worrying shows I’m conscientious and caring.

5 If I worry, I know I’ve done my best to help everyone.

6 Worrying helps prevent bad things happening.

7 I’ll feel less guilty when something bad happens, if I’ve worried enough about it.

Are these beliefs useful?

Until worriers are pushed, they may not realise they think these sorts of things. They’ve never clearly expressed it to themselves.

Each worrier probably has their own set of similar beliefs. So yours may be a little different to the ones listed above. But the general principle will still be the same.

In some way, worry makes you feel good and removes negatives. And the more you worry, the more of these benefits you get. 

The question is: are these beliefs helpful?

Let’s explore them to see where the rewards could be. For instance, imagine you think the following:

1 Worry “helps” me solve problems

If you’re worrying, you feel more confident because (wrongly), you think you’re taking steps to solve the problem. The belief you’re doing something stops you feeling helpless and scared. So the more you worry, the more benefits or rewards you think you get.

2 Worry “helps” keep us safe

It feels good to think you’re protecting your loved ones or yourself. This can lessen the fear of illness, accidents or assault in the short-term. You think if you worry hard enough, you won’t have to see the terrible results of these events.

But does worrying itself actually stop these things happening? Or is it good planning and effective action that stops bad things happening?

So what has worrying achieved in reality?

And how long does the relief you feel actually last? If it’s only a short time, that explains why you have to start worrying again.

Statements 3, 4 and 5 are linked in many ways. These were:

3 If I don’t worry about x, y or z, who will?
4 Worrying “shows” I care
5 If I worry, I’ve “done my best” to help 

These statements imply you’re proud that you’re doing your duty in worrying about others. You believe it’s the responsible thing to do, although nobody else seems to understand.

But for you, worrying takes away the fear that nothing is being done about potential problems. 

Secretly, you may hope others notice how caring you are for worrying. And you really do believe you’ve done all you could to help others – even if you didn’t take any practical steps to do anything useful.

So again, worry seems rewarding, as it makes you feel better momentarily.

6 Worrying “prevents” bad things 

Every time you worry, you fear something bad will happen. But you believe if you worry hard enough, you may be able to stop these things.

So each time a worry doesn’t happen, your belief that worry is useful gets stronger.

You tell yourself, “See, worry works. It stops bad things happening.” 

But has it really stopped anything bad from happening? Or were those things unlikely to happen anyway?

How can you prove it was worry that stopped those things happening? If you didn’t worry, and those things didn’t happen anyway, what would you say then? 

7 I’ll feel less guilty if I worry enough 

Having worried helps take away unpleasant feelings of guilt if something bad happens. And perhaps you won’t be blamed for what happens if people can see you’ve worried hard enough. You can maintain both your self-esteem and your reputation for being responsible.

That in turn makes you feel better about yourself as a person. 

So all of the above statements show worry seems to give some rewards. 

But it’s interesting that worriers never actually check if these beliefs work in reality.

What happens if you stop worrying?

So if worry really works to stop bad things, what happens if you don’t worry any more?

Do bad things happen more? Less? At the same frequency?

Do people think you’re uncaring, irresponsible, and lazy?

Do others accuse you of not keeping them safe and protected?

Do your worst fears always come to pass? And are they always disasters?

Or do things go along pretty much the same as always?

So if you really want to beat your worry habit, take the challenge. Let go of your worries for several weeks, and see if your life falls to pieces or not.

Then start worrying again for a few weeks, and see if life magically gets better.

Magical thinking

Something that worriers often can’t explain is, “What is the mechanism by which worry works?”

Worry is a purely mental activity. It produces a whole lot of thoughts in your head, that may then trigger physical feelings.

So how does worry, which is going on in your head, affect what happens in real life?

It’s like saying, “I can move that cup without touching it – if I think about it hard enough.”

If you believe worry changes what happens in the world, you’re saying you can change events simply by thinking about them – and without taking any action.

Most people wouldn’t agree that they have that power.

However, they would agree that it’s the actions you take, that solve problems. You have to get out in the real world, and actually do something. Not just sit and worry about the same thoughts, over and over.

But what if you do think you can move something with your mind alone?

You’re now straying into magical thinking.

So perhaps there’s an element of magical thinking in worry as well. The beliefs about worry that are discussed above, are really all about wishful thinking.

In other words, what you wish would happen if you worried enough?

If so, are these beliefs truly helpful? Or are they leading you away from facing reality?

In fact, it’s far more useful to drop worry, face your fears, and to learn how to problem-solve. Because problem solving helps reduce worry. 

Let’s see how Sarah’s life has been affected by wishful thinking caused by her worry habit.

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