Has anyone ever told you that worrying won’t help anything? Well, they might have been wrong. Worrying could actually be good for you, according to a study published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
“Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile,” Kate Sweeny, a Psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of the study, argued. “It has motivational benefits, and it acts as an emotional buffer.”
Worrying has motivational and emotional benefits that can be used as tools to to avoid unsatisfactory situations. Worrying is a way for people to overcome past trauma, as well as prepare and plan for potential unpleasant situations — you live and you learn, as the colloquial saying goes.
Research has found that people who worry often perform better in school and at work. They’re also stronger problem solvers and are more motivated to take care of their health. Sweeny says that people who worry about cancer wear more sunscreen, do self-exams and have regular mammograms compared to those who are less worried.
Sweeny believes there are three main reasons why worrying is a motivator. First, it’s a cue that something is serious and requires attention. Also, worry holds a person’s attention and prompts them to act. Since worrying is not a pleasant feeling, it can motivate people to become more proactive about reducing their worry and stress.
“Worry can motivate proactive efforts to assemble a ready-made set of responses in the case of bad news,” Sweeny said. “Worrying pays off because one is actively thinking of a ‘plan B.’”
Additionally, worrying can put other feelings into perspective. For example, if you’re very worried about something, but then everything turns out to be great, the resulting feelings of happiness and relief are stronger.
“If people’s feelings of worry over a future outcome are sufficiently intense and unpleasant, their emotional response to the outcome they ultimately experience will seem more pleasurable in comparison to their previous, worried state,” Sweeny said.
However, Sweeny does not advocate for excessive worrying, which can prove to be debilitating, counterproductive and quite unhealthy. Instead, Sweeny hopes “to provide reassurance to the helpless worrier — planning and preventative action is not a bad thing. Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.