Worry is powerful
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Worrying has gotten a bad rap in our society. We strive to be chill and level-headed and consider people who worry to be alarmist or too tightly wound. While no one is saying that pervasive, generalized anxiety is a good thing (it's a mental illness actually), everyday worrying has some real advantages. According to a recent study, published in Social & Personality Psychology Compass, a little anxiety is healthy—helping people recover from trauma, be better planners, prepare more thoroughly, live a healthier lifestyle, and even overcome depression. The challenge is to reap the rewards of worrying without going over the edge. The trick, according to Shelly Smith-Acuña, PhD, professor and dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, lies in how you use your worries. "Adaptive worry alerts you to dangers and threats, clarifies the problem, can lead you to seek help or more information from others, and then helps you solve the problem," she explains. Here's how you can worry "the right way."
Worry about your health
Feel a twinge in your chest or take a nasty fall? One of the first responses of your body is to worry—and that's a good thing, according to Dr. Smith-Acuña. People who worry are more likely to seek preventative care like yearly check-ups, mammograms, colonoscopies, and even wear sunscreen, she says. A little worry can also spur you to make a plan to help with current problems, like losing weight or cleaning up your diet. But there's a fine line between acting on your worries to prevent future problems and becoming a full-blown hypochondriac. "Don't constantly be checking 'Dr. Google,' and instead follow-up with people who can help you, like your doctor," she says. "And don't worry so much that it has the opposite effect, making you scared to see a doctor." (If you're going to check Dr. Google, know the signs you can't trust health information you just found on the We
Worry about your career
Most of us work and consequently most of us worry about our work. Are we doing well enough? Does our boss like us? Are we stagnating? Will our company go under? Worrying obsessively about these concerns won't help your career, but a little fear can help you achieve your goals, according to Dr. Smith-Acuña. "Sometimes worry highlights legitimate problems with your job that you shouldn't ignore," she explains. "Worrying can help you leave a bad job or at least get you to update your resume, ask for help, or seek other resources." On the other hand, worrying too much at work may hurt your self confidence, cause you to give up too easily, or become overly sensitive to coworkers. (Here's how to build trust with coworkers.) As long as your worries are motivating you to act productively, they're helpful. Let them go if they're having the opposite effect.
Worry about your relationship
Ah, love. Have people ever worried more about any one thing? Dr. Smith-Acuña says it's a major reason people come to see her. But worrying has a surprising benefit in relationships—it can bring you closer together! "If you listen to worry as a signal that your relationship needs to improve, it can help you revive the spark and fix it before things get too bad," she says. (But these relationship fights are actually perfectly normal.) Listen to your gut: Worrying can also help you recognize when you're in an unhealthy relationship and know when it's time to get out, she adds.
Worry about safety
Worryworts are more likely to do things like wear bike helmets, use seatbelts, learn first aid, and take other precautionary measures, according to the study. "Worry is a built-in instinct to help us assess our situation realistically," Dr. Smith-Acuña explains. Just don't mess up those instincts by watching too much TV. "With our 24/7 media coverage it can be hard to accurately gauge what is a real threat to us and what isn't," she says. Being prepared is one thing, but being terrified to leave your house because nothing feels safe anymore has crossed the line, and you should see a professional.
Worry about food
Nutrition is one of the biggest health factors that's under our control, so it makes sense for people to think a lot about what they're putting in their mouths. (Plus, food is delicious and fun to eat!) Worrying about your nutrition can inspire you to eat more vegetables, avoid junk food, wash your produce, and toss expired foods. (Here's how to eat more vegetables without even trying.) But, Dr. Smith-Acuña adds, it's easy to take it too far and obsess over every little bite. "Food isn't about 'right' or 'wrong' but about how it makes you feel," she explains. "Take time to eat and enjoy your food, and pay attention to how what you eat makes your body feel; then aim to eat things that make you feel good."
Worry about your kids
Parenting is an anxiety landmine. From the second you leave the hospital with your little bundle (who just lets new parents walk out with an infant anyhow?!) parents are plagued with worry, and some of it can feel like a life-or-death matter. But this is a great opportunity to use worry to your advantage. "Worry can help you tune in to your instincts because no one knows your child like you do," Dr. Smith-Acuña explains. (Here's how to tap into your intuition.) "Information is your friend, so get educated about parenting and it will help you know when to worry and when to relax." Just make sure you're not going overboard. "It's important to moderate your worry for the sake of your child's mental health," she adds. Basically you want to be a good role model for how to deal with worry and be careful to not instill a sense of fear in your child.
Worry about your family
One of the pitfalls of family relationships is the very real danger that someone will simply cut ties because of hurt feelings. Emotional wounds can fester over distance and time, turning little problems into full-on feuds (often because everyone wants to pretend everything is "fine" when it really isn't). "Worrying about your family relationships—mom, dad, siblings, extended family—can lead to a good open discussion about what's going on with everyone," Dr. Smith-Acuña says. Don't miss the 17 secrets of happy families.
When worrying goes too far
Like most things, worrying is all about balance. Worry too little and you put yourself in danger; worry too much and you may never leave your house again. Worrying alone won't solve anything. Even though it sometimes feels like worrying is better than doing nothing, it's damaging if it doesn't lead you to act or change, Dr. Smith-Acuña says. How do you know when you've crossed the line from adaptive worry to ruminating—or worse? If your worry amplifies danger, escalates anxiety, interferes with good judgment, doesn't promote problem solving, is obsessive, doesn't go away when a strategy or plan is developed, or is socially isolating, it's time to get outside help.