My mother used to do what I call “prophylactic worrying.” In the late afternoon every weekday, she’d worry about my father, who was driving home on a busy highway where there were lots of car accidents. She once admitted she felt that, by worrying about him, she could somehow keep him safe. That surprised me—it seemed irrational for an intelligent woman. So I was surprised the other day to discover that prophylactic worrying is quite common (though nobody calls it that).
I made that discovery while I was researching “worrying” online. I’m a lifelong worrywart myself—even more so now, late in life—and I’ve been fretting recently about how much worrying I do.
It turns out that psychologists have done quite a lot of research on worrying and have found answers to questions I hadn’t yet thought to ask, along with suggestions for how to worry less.
There was even an explanation for the prophylactic sort. Psychologist Sarb Johal, PhD, suggested that when you stew about a situation and it turns out all right, that trains your brain to falsely associate worrying with positive results: you learn that when you worry, the problem goes away. So whenever it crops up again, you feel almost obligated to do some worrying to prevent the worst from happening.
I was surprised to learn that, according to research, older people worry less often than those who are younger. No one knows why, and theories range from suggestions that age and experience confer wisdom or improve coping skills to speculations that, in later years, changes in the brain or in hormone levels somehow reduce worrying.
Experts note that some people seem to be born worriers and that the tendency to worry a lot is probably partly genetic and partly the way a person is raised. Children of divorced or overprotective parents tend to be worriers, along with those who started life in a household where they didn’t feel secure. One thing chronic worriers share is that they have trouble tolerating uncertainties (I certainly do).
It’s normal to worry from time to time, and productive worrying can motivate you to take action. After fretting over a sore shoulder, for example, you might decide to see a doctor.
But some worrying is unproductive: you can’t get yourself motivated to do anything about it, or there really is nothing you can do—except worry. Perhaps someone you love is very ill, and you keep imagining worst-case scenarios. That level of worrying is stressful if it persists. It’s been linked to everything from headaches to high blood pressure.
Fortunately, psychologists have plenty of ideas about how to control worrying. Here are seven of them, based mainly on an article by Johal.
Turn off the news if that’s part of your problem.
Put your worries into words. Talk to friends or family. That can relieve stress while providing you with fresh perspectives.
Cultivate soothing habits and routines. Sit down with a cup of tea at a certain time every day, or schedule regular phone calls with a friend. Johal says, “Choosing a few helpful habits, building them into your routines, and sticking to them can help tame your worry more than you realize. Habits become automatic and give us a sense of predictability and control.”
Look for things (and people) that can make you laugh. Watch sitcoms or rom-coms (romantic comedies) if you like them. Hang out with people who share your sense of humor. Laughter can ease stress, distract you from your worries and help you connect with others.
Have a good cry. The tears of distress that run down your face contain hormones, including oxytocin and endorphins, which can help you feel better, as well as cortisol and adrenaline, which are released at times of stress. Researchers suggest that shedding those stress hormones in the form of tears can reduce stress.
Practice mindfulness. Studies show this works. In mindfulness meditation, you focus on what you’re sensing in that moment, perhaps just what it feels like to breathe in and out. When worrisome thoughts intrude, you notice them and then turn your attention back to your breathing. Do this for five to 15 minutes a day, and over a period of several months, it can ease those constant concerns.
Do your worrying on a schedule. Psychologist Amy Morin, PhD, suggests setting aside 15 minutes a day to indulge in worrying. Have a worry fest from, say, 7:00 to 7:15 every evening. During the rest of the day, when some dire concern pops into your mind, put it aside to fret about later. At the scheduled time, drag out everything that’s been bothering you—write things down if you like. But lay them aside again at 7:15.
None of these strategies will work for everybody, and if you feel overwhelmed by worries, do see your doctor. There are medications that can help.
I’m planning to try some of the suggestions above. I’ve done mindfulness meditation in the past and it’s time to get in some practice again. I’m also scheduling 15 minutes of worry-time for just after lunch.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.