Even though we live in the 21st century and have pretty advanced tech at our disposal, our brains still operate with mechanisms that developed very early in human history. And because everything has been changing and evolving so fast in the last decades, the level of uncertainty is growing. Unfortunately, our brain, our operation system, hasn’t kept up with this speed.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the main uncertainty was basic survival - food and shelter. However, a lot has changed since then, and today we can even become upset by such ridiculous things as an unstable Wi-Fi connection on our vacation.
The tendency to worry is now omnipresent. And while it used to serve a good purpose, today, it is almost a disease. Worrying left unchecked can grow into a monstrous beast that causes anxiety and is extremely hard to slay. But why it happens? And how to realize that your anxiety can probably be the reason and also the result of your worrying and overthinking habits?
The Purpose Behind Worry Thinking
Our old survival brain triggers worry and alertness to help us becomes familiar with circumstances or environment that are new and unknown. It allows us to explore and proceed cautiously when we don’t know what to expect.
Take this example:
You crash on a desolate island. You don’t know where you are if anybody lives there. What animals or danger could there be. You don’t know if there is any food or where to find it. However, you have to SURVIVE. So you’ll have to find the answers to all of the above. You don’t throw yourself happily into the jungle and eat every berry-like things you see. Instead, you get nervous and worry: What if this is poison? What if a tiger lives here? This thinking will ensure you safely explore the unknown territory and gather everything you need. Which means you SURVIVE.
Your brain then creates this link:
Uncertainty - Worry (problem-solving) - Survived (problem solved) - Worry useful
We’re primed for problem-solving, and that’s exactly what the brain performs when worrying. Helping you find the solution. In other words, if you wouldn’t worry, you’d probably be dead because you wouldn’t try to solve the problem of surviving on this planet.
What Causes Worry to Become Highly Addictive
If you look closely, we are all addicted to something. It’s not reserved only for harmful substance abuse, like alcohol, tobacco or other more potent drugs. It can be gaming, food, binge-watching tv, or even healthy activities like exercise.
There’s a type of learning called intermittent reinforcement ¹, which is one of the strongest drivers of addiction. It means our craving for something is maximized when the reward is uncertain. As Brown University professor and researcher Jud Brewer explains: “That’s because unexpected rewards fire off dopamine in your brain at a much higher rate than expected ones. “²
You play cards on your laptop 10 times but win only once. So your brain thinks: Keep trying; what if the next time you win? This process helps you get addicted not just to cards but also to worrying. If it worked once, you never know when it will work again, right?
Worrying becomes addictive when you unconsciously start using it as a coping mechanism for anxiety and other negative emotions. But why would you make such a choice when it doesn’t feel much better? Well, to your brain, it is better. It is rewarding because it appears like a positive action to feel fine again, e.g. get results or solve a problem.
This whole process triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, to give you a prize for your efforts. And as we naturally incline toward what’s pleasurable, you start craving worry to get your dopamine fix.
The Relationship Between Worry and Anxiety
Anxiety and worry perpetuate each other. You probably suspected that. But how? When you feel negative, unpleasant emotions like anxiety, it can trigger worry as an attempt to solve it or as a distraction. However, worry can create another anxiety because it primarily features negative thoughts and replays worst-case scenarios.
So, let’s say you have an important job interview tomorrow and start feeling anxious. The anxiety triggers worrying, “What if I fail? What if I don’t get the job. I won’t have enough money. What if I become homeless?“
These thoughts will probably continue until that interview is over. And if you pass it successfully, your brain will make a connection: worrying = success = dopamine release = feeling good.
Now guess what happens next time you got a similar event? The worry starts right away.
In this manner, it can easily become a habit and your brain’s preferred type of drug. After all, your brain thinks it’s actively fighting the problem. Unfortunately, it’s an illusion; it just numbs the original emotion.
Signs You Worry Too Much
By now, you probably know whether you have a problem with excessive worrying. But if you are still unsure, here are some questions that can help you:
- How often do you say: I worry that XY will happen?
- Does your brain starts spinning worrisome thoughts the minute your head hits the pillow at night, making it hard to fall asleep?
- How much do you think: What if?
- Does your mind start looking for a problem to think about when you realize you feel happy and calm?
- Do you feel irresponsible or guilty when you’re not worrying about anything?
- Did your parents also constantly worry when you were a kid?
- When you have an important event with an uncertain outcome, are you consumed by doubts and anxiety days and weeks ahead?
If you positively answered most of the questions, you can benefit from training your brain to develop more helpful behavior.
Tips on How to Decrease Your Worry
Anxiety and worry can be viewed as inseparable friends. Where one goes, the other follows. Therefore, learning how to limit or decrease worry to a healthier level can drastically reduce your anxiety.
Inspect your worry habit
To change your worrying habit, practice awareness of triggers and how you usually deal with them. Awareness is crucial in determining what your worries look like. For example, is a particular emotion arousing your negative thoughts? Or is it always centered around the same issues? Having a clear picture of your triggers and resultant coping mechanisms makes it much easier to work on solutions.
Accept uncertainty and work on what you can control
Everything is more or less uncertain. And we like to feel in control. Mix these two together, and we can have a problem here, as uncertainty implies that we can’t fully control anything. But we can learn to accept it. Working on the controllable part of your problem puts you in back charge. However, what ultimately determines how you’d feel in the process is how much you’re ok with an unexpected outcome even though you did your best to influence it.
Practice making a choice
The worry cycle often doesn’t stop because we go through many scenarios in our minds; we compare them but fail to pick a solution and stick with it. We fail to embrace our choice. There’s always the fear of what if the other way would be better. In this case, our perfectionism stands in the way. Yet, only complex issues like buying a new house in a new city require weeks of thinking; instead, in a majority of cases, the first good enough idea is probably the right thing to choose.
Now you see that worry is an inherent process which can’t be completely switched off. But through understanding its mechanism and purpose, you can learn how to put it back to its original level and stop it from overpowering your life.
1. Intermittent reinforcement is a term described in the book Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer. Here he explains how this mechanism influences reward-based learning and how it is used to enhance cravings by businesses like social media.
2. Brewer, Judson. Unwinding Anxiety (p. 34). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.