One question that I commonly hear in-session is, “At what point does worrying and stress become unhealthy?” It’s an interesting question, because it implies that there is a certain level of worry and stress that IS healthy. I think this implication is true. If we never worried or felt stressed about anything then we might have a certain level of indifference and apathy. Maybe we would not care as much about our health, our family, or making progress overall in life. In other words, within limits anxiety is actually a useful emotion that serves us!
So what does healthy worry look like?
Well one way to look at it is that healthy worry tends to lead to useful actions. Here’s an example: if your child is out and it’s after their curfew, it might be useful to worry about them a bit! It could prompt you to call your child, be sure they are safe, and ask them to come home. Here’s another example: say you are about to go to sleep. You are lying in bed, with your eyes closed, and you suddenly think, “Oh no, I think I forgot to set my alarm for tomorrow morning!” You wonder if you may have set the alarm mindlessly, but part of you thinks that maybe you forgot to set it altogether. You decide to get up and check your alarm, and lo and behold, it was not set. Good thing you worried enough to get up and check it! To sum it up, healthy worrying leads to taking useful actions.
What does unhealthy worrying look like?
Well, unsurprisingly, it tends to be worrying that does not lead to useful actions. In other words, if your worrying is leading you to take actions that are detrimental in some way, or if they don’t move you to react in any sort of useful way, then you can safely assume that your worrying is unhealthy. Examples of unhealthy worrying include: worrying about an asteroid hitting earth or worrying about a nuclear holocaust. Most of us have approximately zero percent influence over these things, so it would not make sense to worry about them! However, there is another category of unhealthy worrying that is less obvious: things that only have the potential to be influenced by you, but you don’t have direct control over. This mainly has to do with trying to control the behaviors of others. Examples include: Your adult son or daughter is not eating as healthy as you would like, your spouse is engaging in activities that worsen his/her mental health, or something is being done in your neighborhood which you believe will depreciate the value of local homes, etc. The tricky thing here is that you may have some degree of influence over them, but it is limited. Furthermore, the stress you are causing yourself may be greater than the positive impact you could make. Worse still is when you simply worry about something, but don’t actually do anything about it! In that case, even if you could influence things, you’re not making any sort of impact. To sum it up, unhealthy worrying leads to taking actions that are ineffective or harmful, or it leads to procrastination.
It is important to note that even healthy worrying can become unhealthy if it becomes excessive. When it comes to determining whether someone has an anxiety disorder, one of the most important criteria is whether the worrying leads to the person having significant distress and/or impairment. So if you’re engaging in “healthy worry” to the point that it’s really stressing you out or is limiting you in some way, then it has crossed over into unhealthy worrying. Examples of these can include worrying so much that it makes it difficult for you to go to work, or procrastinating more than usual because you feel overwhelmed.
These are some general guidelines in order to help you evaluate your worries, but the next question might be: what do I do if I’m engaging in unhealthy worrying, but I feel like I can’t stop? This important question will be the topic of an upcoming post!