Harnessing Worry's Insight - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Harnessing Worry’s Insight

We know it’s not a healthy habit, but worry––reflexive, involuntary––implicates both the rational as well as the irrational. A potentially stressful life event looms. Consciously, we react, seeing things as they are; subconsciously, we create, envisioning potential perilous outcomes. Worry hinders accurate decision making, constrains flexibility, compromises effectiveness.

A recent article establishes how “worrying is associated with memory biases for negative information.” “Despite the clinical relevance of worrying, its underlying cognitive mechanisms remain poorly understood. Eysenck postulates that high-worriers’ long term memory is characterized by tightly organized clusters with negatively valenced worry-related information, causing this information to be more readily accessible. Based on this premise, we expect (1) that high-worriers will more easily store negative worry-related information, but (2) that they are also more prone to produce false memories about negatively valenced worry-related information. We tested these hypotheses in a healthy student population using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm. The results of our study indicate that worrying is positively correlated (1) with the correct recognition of negative words, and (2) with the production of false recognitions of negative words. These results were unrelated to themes participants often worry about. As expected, there was no correlation between worrying and (false) recognition of positive or neutral words. In conclusion, these findings indicate that worrying is associated with memory biases for negative information. This supports the existence of negatively valenced clustered long term memory structures. However, no support was found for the idea that clusters are concentrated on specific worry themes high worriers frequently worry about.”

To some extent, worry may be hardwired into our minds, so perhaps it’s best to ask––does worry have an upside? Is there a way to harness worry? Or, another way to phrase the question: how can one best put to use a “memory bias for negative information?”

Worry as a means of identification/amplification. Since your mind has decided to dwell negatively on a subject, you know somewhere there’s “negatively valenced clustered long term memory structures” that are being tapped into. Since you’re in a state of worry, you might as well use what worry provides––an in-depth look into one area that’s a cause for concern. Worry can be used to identify and amplify potential problem areas. In turn, these potential problem areas can be corrected or avoided if you examine why in the first place they’ve triggered a worry.

Worry as a source of provocation/motivation. Worries are tied to those phases of life with which we have a deep emotional connection. We don’t often worry about aspects of reality of which we know nothing. If you can somehow link the onset of worry as a means to provoke and motivate, then at least you’ve harnessed worry as a call to action. In this regard, not all worries are without value––a “worry-free life” may not be what’s best for optimal living. Our worries are telling us something––it’s up to us to make sense of them, to understand why.

Worry as a method of coping/coming to terms. Worry is one way of coping, of coming to terms. We can ignore potential problems, we can recognize and assess them––or we can worry about them. “Worry can be described as uncontrollable thought activity, typically involving concerns about future events with a possible negative outcome. High-worriers are characterized by a higher uncontrollability of negative thought intrusions as opposed to low-worriers. Eysenck hypothesizes that these uncontrollable negative thought intrusions are due to tightly organized worry-clusters in high-worriers’ long term memory (LTM).” Mental durability, hardiness, resilience––entire books have been written about the development of these. Each person is wired differently––there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of worry, but there are some helpful guidelines.

Common advice would include the following: “Pay attention. Look carefully at your worries. There’s a reason why they keep arising. Plan/project forward. Planning and projecting forward will ease the worrisome burden of future uncertainty. Prepare. There’s an ancient Korean proverb: “To be prepared is to have no anxiety.” (In the area of contested lawsuits, this notion is particularly applicable…) Put things into perspective. Ask: what’s the worst that might happen? Chances are the dire consequences you’ve imagined are not as bleak as your late-night thoughts have surmised.” But suggestions like these only take you so far––an involuntary response cannot be entirely controlled by a voluntary act.

“If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep”––Dale Carnegie. If you find yourself in a constant state of worry, you’ve developed an unhealthy habit, one that needs correction. The good news––it’s probably one that can be lessened, if not outgrown, over time. Knowledge, training, harnessing worry’s insight––you know you’ve reached an optimal state when you can silence your worries at will, or harness them for a greater purpose. Even-toned mental architecture, flow-state psychological design––developing the capacity for level-headedness in the middle of a storm––don’t be disappointed if this takes more time and effort to gain control of than anticipated. Vanquishing worry is one of those silent, unspoken skills. No one talks about it. It’s not an easy or comfortable subject, because it’s a vulnerability we’d rather not project. Perhaps it all boils down to the simple act of “letting go.” You’ve reached high altitude. You have on your parachute. You’ve trained and practiced for weeks. Now, all you have to do is jump.

All quotations from Mieke Beckwé, Natacha Deroost, Worrying Facilitates Correct and False Memories about Negative Information, J Psychol Psychother 2016, 6:3 : https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/worrying-facilitates-correct-and-false-memories-about-negative-information-2161-0487-1000268.pdf

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