Why is it fine to worry?
Just realized this the second post in six weeks that ends with me having to go the bathroom (https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/psychology-might-be-a-big-stinkin). Folks, I got a problem.
Sometimes I wonder if we simply evolved an incredibly high amount of natural anxiety just to keep our toddlers from straight-up killing themselves. Kids are natural sources of anxiety, for sure, but they are also a place to direct it, which sort of bleeds it from the rest of life.
I shared this section with a couple people:
"Two: it’s easy to mistake worrying about a problem for solving a problem. Being anxious about climate change, for example, almost looks like doing something about climate change. Of course, you don't remove carbon from the atmosphere by reading articles and going “ah jeez,” and “oh no,” and “yikes.”"
I've been thinking recently how about how the ruminating/"problem-solving" me keeps me awake at night sometimes. There's something important that me wants me to know, and it is that she is scared and doesn't want a bad thing to happen. I've started trying to notice that instead of engaging with the ruminating: what is this me trying to tell me right now? If she's scared and doesn't want a bad thing to happen, that makes total sense! I don't need to shame myself or really even problem solve it. What I really need is a dose of self-compassion, and a reminder that I'm braver and stronger than I think, especially when I reach out to others for help. We don't do anything alone.
Gavin de Becker covers this topic thoroughly in The Gift of Fear.
He differentiates between worry and fear. Fear is what saved our ancestor when something made noises in the underbrush. Fear engenders singular action. Worry, otoh, is characterized by ceaseless ineffective action. De Becker calls it "drying off the pavement" (Driving twisty mountain roads in the dark, if it starts to rain, slow down, don't get out of the car and try to dry off the pavement.) Having arguments with people who aren't in the room, endlessly writing lists, etc., that's drying off the pavement.
He also walks through how worrying is an enculturated (is that a word? If not, it oughta be one!) behavior. Worry (on the part of the targeted) is beneficial to human predators (whether toxic bosses or dictators or...) because it teaches the habits of ceaseless activity and it dulls the ability to sense actual danger via fear.
It's a great book, he explains it all far better than I do. I've pretty much don't worry any more. I also found Pema Chodron's work on becoming comfortable with uncertainty foundational.
Then there's the problem of working in tech as someone who does not participate in the ritual of worrying. Talk about culturally unacceptable behavior! 🤣🤣🤣
This was so good. I am now worried about how much I worry.
The idea of depression becoming an obsession with making the sad go away is so spot on. It’s interesting how I (and it seems like others) do this way more with sadness than anxiety:
When sad: figure out what to do to make you r self not sad
When anxious: keep worrying cuz u might worry your way out of if(not true)
I read this while I was putting off phone calls I needed to make but dreaded making them. Thank you. I will now make those calls.
Thanks for this Adam! This was my favourite insight: “Four: unlike other negative emotions, anxiety is quite compatible with being a productive member of society. Sad people don’t show up for work, and we can’t have that. Angry people break things, and we can’t have that. But anxious people might work harder.”
As a society, we tend to freak out when the gears of industry, and the system of property that is enmeshed with them, start to misbehave. (Like the freak out about “soft quitting!”) As a result, I wonder if we just have a veeeery lagging measure of how we are doing as a society. People being anxious? Eh. People smashing windows? Oh no!
Friends self isolating out of fear everyone hates them? Eh. This same anxiety getting in the way of their work performance? Gotta have a tough talk with Jim!
I hope for our own sakes that we learn to detach from productivity as a central value -- and see it as equally alarming when someone is not as loving, present or truthful with us. What do we owe each other in society? I’m praying it’s more than our labour and our respect for the rules 💗
I love this: "a world where it’s fine to feel fear, but not to live in it." Thanks for such a beautiful post about a perennial topic!
I’m guessing it’s partly a coping strategy. Ambiently envisaging nothing going well dials down the impact if it really doesn’t go badly.
I’ve spent about five years living and working in cultures where there is almost no detectable anxiety. Two big possibilities come to mind to explain our WEIRD anxiety—one circumstantial and one cultural. Circumstantially, it seems likely that those places have more actual, actionable stuff to worry about. In the Himalayas, you need to worry about getting your maize planted and weeded, about marauding elephants and leopards, about getting clean drinking water, etc. Maybe humans evolved to worry about things, and anxiety takes the place of having actionable worries.
However, in some places these actionable worries are mostly in the past. The Marshall Islands are a good example, and the Marshallese don’t seem to carry around much anxiety. So I think cultural factors are more likely. In the case of America, I think neurosis might be upstream of anxiety. You can only be anxious about how and when you pee if you are thinking about it and trying to optimize. So what is upstream of neurosis? I have a few theories about that too: maybe it’s the good old pioneer spirit—many children grow up with the social pressure to “be somebody”, which is actually a lot of pressure in a global world with a surplus of choices. Or maybe children learn anxiety from parents, who are anxious because child-rearing has become such an all-consuming thing (in the other places I mentioned, children roam freely and are raised largely by other children). Or, a wildcard: maybe our brains can bleed off extra energy (from surplus calorie intake) by simply “thinking more”. I wrote a little more about that here: https://seizedbytheday.org/posts/food-for-thought/ (brand-new blog alert).
I love all your recent articles, but particularly this one. Thanks for writing!
Btw, I believe we overlapped at Princeton by one year - I was a freshman when you were a senior, and lived down the hall from you in Wendell Hall!
This is brilliant and hilarious. And so very necessary, as the pandemic has helped people justify letting their anxiety spiral until they've built themselves little anxiety prisons. Our hubris fuels this false sense of control that messes us up and, ironically, turns us into shaky messes.
I do take issue with one idea: "We are the descendants of neurotic survivors, humans who worried that the shadow in the grass might be a tiger, that their winter stash of nuts and roots might run out, that they might get kicked out of the tribe for being too annoying. They worried, they lived, they had kids, and now we’re here, equally anxious in a world that’s much less dangerous."
Do we think anxiety makes us more likely to survive, given that it's generally not tied to useful actions? In my experience, overthinking is far more likely to lead to inaction or mucking things up because I'm too anxious to give anything my full attention than it is to help me make a well thought out and wise choice.
1) When that day arrives when St. Peter asks you why he should open the gates to a worry-wart like you, you can point out that you once gave an old man good advice: Just stop reading the news! It hasn't been easy, and I haven't gone cold turkey, but my life has been immeasurably better since I started following your suggestion. Thanks!
2) Sometime you need to tell us about your Dad. However bizarre the occasion or topic, he seems to have an appropriate picture. How far from the tree has the apple fallen?
Best article I have read in months. Deeply insightful and surprisingly simple. Love "WHY WE THINK IT’S FINE TO WORRY". Especially point two and three.
I shared your article to a friend and she found it very insightful.
You use anxiety and worry interchangeably in the post, but I think of them as overlapping but distinct, with anxiety being the emotional response and worry the cognitive one.
They're often the same, but can be different. People can be generally anxious for no real reason (albeit often attaching things that happen around them as ad hoc reasons), and similarly, it's possible to worry without being anxious (say, when planning for downsides/disasters).
I worry about loads of things, but I'm not generally anxious - I'm inclined to think the worst is likely to happen, so that's my mental model, but I don't wring my hands about it or feel tight in the chest (at least, not often).
FYI, I liked your post, so you don't need to check! And I agree with Clayton. One more thing, it doesn't matter who you vote for, because a politician will still get elected. 🤪