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Worry—It Does a Body Good

A psychology professor argues that worrying is actually good for the mind and body.

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man worrying on bus

Marjan_Apostolovic/Thinkstock

We worry about all sorts of things, from getting older, to credit card debt and parenting issues. We worry about paying the mortgage. We worry we didn’t eat enough kale. Hmm, maybe Fluffy is off her feed, too... And then we worry that all this worrying is bad for us and we’re about to drop over dead.  

Well, I have good news, Worry Nation! In a new paper, University of California, Riverside psychology professor Kate Sweeny assures us that there’s an upside to all this fretting. Her paper, "The Surprising Upsides of Worry,” was published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

“Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile," Sweeny writes. “It has motivational benefits, and it acts as an emotional buffer.”

She studied the role of worry on how it can motivate preventive and protective behavior—such as getting mammograms—and how it leads people to avoid unpleasant events, like failing a test. Sweeny finds worry is associated with many positive traits, such as recovery from traumatic events, planning ahead and recovery from depression. Better yet, people who self report as worriers may perform better at school or in the workplace because they seek out more information in response to stressful events, and engage in more successful problem solving.

Worry is a motivator, Sweeny writes, in three ways:

  1. It’s a cue to us that a situation is serious enough to require our attention. This emotion helps us make judgments and decisions.
  2. Worrying about something keeps it at the forefront of the mind, prompting action.
  3. The unpleasant feeling of worry motivates people to find ways to reduce their worry.

Even when we are worrying about something that is rather futile to stress over, Sweeny says it can be helpful because people find relief in creating a Plan B.

It should be noted that Sweeny is not an advocate for excessive worrying, and notes that “Extreme levels of worry are harmful to one's health.” She writes, “Instead, I hope to provide reassurance to the helpless worrier—planning and preventive action is not a bad thing," Sweeny said. “Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”

Ok! So much for that motto, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Turns out you can worry a bit and still be completely fine, and in fact, be more successful and prepared for what life throws at you.


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers. 


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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