Worrying about a problem helps us to solve a problem – doesn’t it?
Well, no. Worrying and problem-solving are very different things. Indeed, research shows worrying actually makes us less likely, not more likely, to solve our problems.
And yet, worry can feel productive. What’s going on?
It’s true that a certain amount of worry is necessary in certain circumstances. In his book The Worry Cure, CBT therapist Dr Robert Leahy asks you to imagine you’re in court and facing a possible 20-year prison sentence. Your lawyer tells you he never worries about anything, he always tries to think positively.
Would you want this lawyer to defend you? Of course not – you want your lawyer to think of the evidence for and against you, to anticipate what the prosecution may do, to be prepared. In other words, you want him to be concerned and to respond to this concern by devising a plan.
However, Leahy also asks us to imagine you have a lawyer who says he doesn’t prepare for cases – he just worries about them. His incessant worrying is a sign he is a good lawyer, he says. Sometimes, he adds, he worries so much that he feels like vomiting.
Would you want this lawyer to defend you? Again, the answer is no – you want someone who tries to solve your problems, not worry about them.
The point is, worrying doesn’t help; what helps is problem-solving and acting accordingly.
Worrying is a passive activity; problem-solving is active. Worrying is repetitively thinking about all the things that could go wrong; problem-solving focuses on what you can do to make things right. Repetitive worry is unproductive; problem-solving is productive (“Let’s get started”).
As already mentioned, however, worrying can feel productive. You're focusing on the threat or problem, ruminating on all the things that could go wrong, and devoting much time and energy to the subject. As a result, you might not notice that you’re not actually getting anywhere.
Prof Michelle Newman, an expert on chronic worrying, compares it to pressing really hard on the accelerator while the car is in neutral. ‘You might expend a ton of energy and feel mentally exhausted’, says Newman, ‘but you haven’t moved an inch’.
Worrying is tiring. It depletes your cognitive and emotional resources, leaving you less equipped to actually deal with the problem at hand. Worrying makes you feel bad. It can make problems seem bigger than they are. Consequently, you can become too pessimistic and more likely to dismiss workable solutions as not good enough. Worry can lead you to feeling overwhelmed; when we are overwhelmed, we are more likely to avoid tasks than to approach them .
This is confirmed by Prof Newman’s research. In one experiment, one group of people were asked to worry about a problem and others were asked to consider the same problem without worrying (for example, by breaking the problem into smaller parts, to set aside negative thoughts, and so on). Everyone was then asked to come up with solutions.
What happened? Firstly, the people who were asked to worry came up with less effective solutions to the problem. Secondly, they were less likely to put their solutions into action. And thirdly, Newman found that among participants who were naturally high worriers, worrying had a noticeably negative impact on their confidence.
When facing a real problem, the key point is to confront it rather than worrying about it. Robert Leahy gives the example of Brian, who hadn’t filed his taxes for two years, although his employer withheld taxes on his account. Brian worried about the possibility of financial penalties, interest and even jail. And when he worried, he procrastinated on collecting the information and filing.
Dr Leahy’s advice was simple: stop worrying and get problem-solving. Brian collected legal information, contacted his accountant and found out exactly how much money he owed. This focus on action immediately reduced his worry. Additionally, he discovered his liabilities were quite small – something he wouldn’t have realised if he hadn’t taken immediate action.
Remember, worrying and problem-solving are two very different things. Aim to stop worrying and start problem-solving.