Archive for January 4th, 2010

I am an expert worrier.

If awards were given for it, I would no doubt be up for one of them. All who know me well, members of my family and close friends, are well acquainted with the prolific nature of my imaginings,absent positive information, about the whereabouts and safety of those I deeply care about. My son’s recent trip to the Philippines and to the site of an active volcano, Mount Mayon, about which I wrote last week, is a case in point. Thankfully, he and his companion are now safely back in South Korea, but four days without any contact had my imagination going full tilt.

As a man who knows worry, I am particularly well suited to counsel others who struggle with the same but with a severity and intensity far greater than mine. One of my clients, in fact, suffered debilitating degrees of worry when her daughter drove alone to and from work every day. She needed to hear from her daughter on arrival and departure to be sufficiently assured that all was well. On the occasions when, for whatever reason ( like her daughter’s cell phone needed recharging) the worry was so great that she would be paralysed by fear and became physically ill, unable to do anything.

Most of the people I know spend a fair bit of time invested in worry. The range of worry goes from negative passing thoughts to the case I just mentioned of an inability to function at all. A few of my acquaintances seem to worry very little. They move from thing  to thing, event to event, with relative ease. I say “seem to worry little” because I do not know them well enough to judge beyond social impressions.

What is the root of worry? In that it occurs with such frequency, does it have adaptive significance? Is there a brighter side to worry?

While worry generally has a negative valence, it represents cognitive rehearsal of possible events. Catastrophizing thoughts are neurotically inspired by experience and/or impressionistic absorption of sensational and powerfully emotional stories in the press of tragedy, misfortune, and mayhem. In the positive, however, worry reflects a strong capacity to image alternative futures.

It is an intuitive form of scenario planning. The dilemma is that, too often, the “worrying” reflects selective sampling of only negative, or worst case, scenarios. From the standpoint of evolutionary adaptability, worrying, as cognitive rehearsal of untoward events, can alert one to keep up needed vigilance in intrinsically dangerous circumstances. It makes one alert and ready to respond. Carried to the extreme, however, it undermines one’s capacity to be agile and to thrive. Incessant worry robs us of the capacity for joy.


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