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May 22, 2017

The right way to worry, according to research

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on February 1, 2018.

Worrying is never fun, but the emotion can have some surprising benefits—so long as it's done in just the right amount, according to an editorial published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

Get more done—with less stress

According to Kate Sweeny—a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside and lead author of the editorial—worry is the "aversive emotional experience that arises alongside repetitive unpleasant thoughts about the future." But "despite its negative reputation," she explains, "not all worry is destructive or even futile."

The Goldilocks of worrywarts—not too much, not too little

In the editorial, Sweeny and her co-author acknowledge that excessive worrying is tied to negative outcomes, citing research showing a link between excessive worrying and anxiety, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and disrupted sleep.

But it's not all bad. Other research, the authors found, shows that worry can serve as motivation and help prepare people for negative experiences.

For instance, research shows that people who are worried about skin cancer may be more likely to use sunscreen. And another study, focused on people who took the California bar exam, found that those "who reported greater worry throughout the waiting period [for results] responded more productively in the face of bad news." Moreover, if the worriers got unexpected good news, the researchers wrote, they might experience more relief than if they hadn't worried at all.

According to the editorial authors, it all comes down the right balance of worry. 

For instance, Sweeny cites research showing that "women who reported moderate amounts of worry, compared to women reporting relatively low or high levels of worry, are more likely to get screened for cancer." As Sweeny put it, "It seems that both too much and too little worry can interfere with motivation, but the right amount of worry can motivate without paralyzing" (Blaszczak-Bowe, Washington Post, 5/7; Sweeny/Dooley, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/18).

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