How constructive worrying can be a positive response to stressful situations

 “A moderate amount of worry can lead to constructive action and prepare the person for the next step,” says Jake Messing, program director of Behavioral Health Services at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.

Tony V. Martin, The Times

“What, me worry?”

That catchphrase of indifference, popularized in the pages of Mad magazine by the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, has long been the general reaction to stressful situations by those who consider themselves well-composed and above such concerns.

But recent research suggests that a little bit of worrying actually may be a better way to deal with stress and fear than simply playing it cool.

Among this wave of support for the notion of “constructive worrying” is a study by the psychology department at the University of California at Riverside, which found that law students awaiting the results of their state bar exams who worked through feelings of anxiety, rumination and pessimism responded more productively to bad news and more joyfully to good news than those who were stoic during the wait.

Further, those students who tried to alleviate worry through coping strategies like distraction and feigned indifference found many of these methods to be ineffective, often experiencing more distress than the people who embraced their worrying.

In other words, the study suggests, while giving in to worry may not lessen the difficulty of a stressful waiting period, that difficulty may pay off once the trial ends.

At least two local mental health experts see the value of the conclusions reached in the UC Riverside study and agree that there can be certain benefits to worrying, as long as it’s managed properly.

Liz Rathburn, a clinical therapist at Franciscan Behavioral Health Center in Crown Point, stresses that the key to unlocking the potential benefits centers on on how one defines “worry.”

“If it's defined as ruminating on a problem without problem solving, it is nonproductive and can definitely increase stress,” she said. “Think of it this way — if you worry about a negative outcome and it doesn't happen, you've worried needlessly and are experiencing the negative outcome before it even happens. If you worry about a negative outcome and it does happen, you've experienced the negative outcome twice.

"On the other hand, worrying can serve as a motivator to avoid unpleasant feelings associated with a potentially unpleasant event. For example, worrying about an upcoming deadline can motivate you to take steps to chip away at what you need to do. Worrying about your health can lead you to eat healthier. So it's important to remember to ‘worry’ constructively.”

Most people, of course, don’t often take the time to think deeply about the concept of worrying, much less to consider ways to worry constructively — they simply worry. But Rathburn said the positives associated with worrying are only as good as the way in which a person chooses to worry and, specifically, the time devoted to it.

“Worrying nonstop with no movement toward a resolution to your problem is not productive at all," she explained. "You can worry constructively by limiting the time you worry about something, coupling it with problem solving and making a plan to move toward resolution.”

“Having zero worries is not healthy (and impossible), but worry that is all-consuming and all of the time is also not healthy,” said Jake Messing, program director of behavioral health services at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago. “A moderate amount of worry can lead to constructive action and prepare the person for the next step.”

To limit how much time one spends worrying, Rathburn and Messing say it can be helpful to set aside specific “worry times,” perhaps 30 minutes a day.

“One of the keys with worry is to contain it,” Messing said. “'Worry times’ are based on the idea that, outside of these times, one would say, ‘I need to wait until my scheduled worrying time.’ This prevents worry from being all-consuming but still gets the worrying job done.”

While the research surrounding the benefits of worrying is still fairly new, Rathburn said the notion of engaging in some healthy worrying without letting it become overwhelming is rooted in the much more weathered life lesson of “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

“Take the example of a young father who is awaiting news on a promotion he hopes to achieve,” she explained. “He needs the money for his family, and he would view this accomplishment with a sense of pride. He might consider developing a ‘plan B,’ assuming he doesn't get good news, assessing the family income and expenses and planning accordingly. He would also benefit from looking at the positives in his life, even without the promotion, and understanding that he has much to be proud of in his life, including his loving and supportive family. This would serve to put the promotion in perspective.”