A Little Worry is Beneficial; Too Much Will Shorten Your Life
Updated: Mar 19
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” – Marcus Aurelius
For all of society’s advancements and so-called progress, Americans are more stressed out, worried and more anxious than ever.
Stress, anxiety and worry on the rise
A 2018 Gallup Poll showed in fact, that Americans are the most stressed in all the world. It seems that the world’s wealthiest countries also come with the highest rates of generalized anxiety disorders.
From financial and housing worries to career and relationship stress, a recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association, indicates that our collective anxiety is on the rise. A full 39% of people report being more anxious than a year ago.
Anxiety is a disorder in reaction to stress, that has emotional, physical and mental components. This last component includes worry: the thoughts associated with our stress and fears that can run amok.
According to this recent Gallup survey, levels of worry, stress and anger were also up among Americans. Almost half said they worried a lot and 22% felt a lot of anger. Everyone is stressed and angry: the richest and poorest among us and people from age 15 – 50.
Of course, levels of anxiety do differ among age, gender and race. Women, people of color and those struggling financially are – not unexpectedly – more anxious. As you’d probably also expect, those in favor of the current political regime were less worried, stressed or angry than the rest of us.
But there is a bit of good news for all of us: everyone worries less and becomes less angry as we age. I for one, can’t wait.
The upside of moderate worry
“Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”
– Kate Sweeney
Assuming it doesn’t take on a life of its own, there is actually an upside to a little bit of worrying.
Normal levels of anxiety actually motivate us to work harder, problem-solve and help us prepare for the future. In these ways, some worry actually enhances our life. In fact, a 2017 study by psychologist Kate Sweeney of U.C. Riverside found worriers may actually perform better at work - or in school – and be better at problem-solving. Like most things, worry in moderation, isn’t all bad.
Worry is not rational
The problem is: worry doesn’t much lend itself to moderation. Once that train gets rolling and gains a little speed, it can quickly get out of control. Excessive stress actually clouds decision-making, blocking new ideas or solutions or a new perspective that can help.
While a little worry can be helpful in problem-solving an actual problem, most things we obsess over do not actually exist. We worry when nothing has actually happened yet or may not even happen at all. In fact, while the percentages vary, the general consensus is that about 85% - 90% of what we worry about never actually happens.
That’s because worry is not rational and doesn’t concern itself with the chances or odds of something bad occurring. Anxiety doesn’t do math.
Worry is taking its toll on our health
While our brain is working us up into a tither mentally and emotionally, there is also a real physical toll happening as well.
You can feel the increased heart rate or the beads of sweat when under stress. Beyond what we can see though, anxiety and worry lead to high blood pressure and can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Stress has been shown to lead to weakened immune systems, stomach ulcers, backaches, panic attacks, heart palpitations, skin conditions and problems with the bowels. Basically, anxiety can take down every part of your body.
As if that wasn’t enough, wait – there’s more!
When we are anxious, we release the stress hormone cortisol. This release readies our bodies for a heightened situation. This works well when we we’re running from the saber-toothed cat or in an active shooter situation. But once we were safe, these hormones subside.
If the stressors we deal with today rarely subside and we are living for long stretches in a heightened state of anxiety, we do harm to our physical and mental well-being. Studies have linked the stress hormone to a drop in mental function/IQ and brain mass and memory loss.
Finally, the coup de grace: research confirms that living with long-term stress actually shortens our life expectancy. Stress does indeed kill. See, something new to worry about.
We’re doing it to ourselves
Our own thoughts and fears are making us physically and emotionally ill – and even shortening our lives.
There are a few simple, well-accepted daily routines that can help relieve some of the physical symptoms of anxiety: from breathing exercises and journaling to meditation and yoga. Regular physical exercise has also shown to help with anxiety.
But ultimately, worrying is a choice. All the negativity, the constant worry and chatter is within our control to turn off. The mind is reactive. It will follow you where you lead it. We can replace those thoughts with habits that serve us instead.
Accepting life’s uncertainty
“It is the unknown with all its disappointments and surprises that is the most enriching.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea
Uncertainty has been found to play a key role in anxiety. A person’s anxiety level is determined in great part to how they can live and accept the uncertainties of life. The more fearful you are, the more anxiety you have.
Instead, let’s focus on what we have control over. Step-by-step we can plan and prepare and reduce the chances of negative events. Then we have to let it go. They call it: “intelligent detachment”.
If we concentrate on just the next single thing at a time, problems sometime resolve faster than we thought and in unexpected ways. Let our hard work and good intentions do their job and try to release our control and emotional investment in the outcome. It will be or it won’t be. Or maybe it will be wearing a different hat and you won’t recognize it.
But whatever happens, worrying about things you cannot control is useless.
“Cultivating a measure of intelligent detachment in your life can be a valuable instrument of peace.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Sometimes though you may have to deal with bad events and you won’t be able to emotionally detach no matter what. When the divorce, the job, the job loss, the lawsuit, the illness happens, if you can’t stop the worry and stress, it helps to at least contain it.
Don’t turn your life over to it
Whatever bad that is happening, whatever is going down, don’t let it poison and infect the rest of your day or your home or your peace or your relationship.
When you contain the negativity, you limit its power over your life.
No matter what there is to worry and stress about – and there may be a lot - that’s not all of your life. There’s still plenty of great things still going on. Gratitude is a great weapon against worry.
Call it: That’s enough stress and worry for today.
Don’t call its name or feed it
We empower worries by talking about them. They are nothing more than your own fearful thoughts right now. Don’t give them a voice - or an audience.
The most common regret
In 2004, Karl Pillemer started Cornell University’s Legacy Project. As part of his research, he asked 1,500 people – over age 65 - about their greatest regret in life. Over and over, the most common response was resounding:
I wish I hadn’t worried so much.
From a vantage point that is broad and long and informed by pain and life experiences, these wise elders see worry for exactly what it is: a waste of our precious, fleeting life.
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