I am a professional worrier and an equal opportunity one. I can worry about the most mundane things as well as calamities that, deep down, I know will never come to pass. And those I know will come to pass, like a big earthquake for instance, don’t really phase me. The worry stems from immediacy. Then there is worry as magical thinking: if I imagine the worst possible outcome, I am convinced everything will be well. Psychologists call this (fairly common) behavior “defensive pessimism”.
My need to worry got a boost this week. A study in the journal Emotion followed a sample of 230 law students at the University of California Los Angeles as they waited for the results of their bar exams, and looked at how they dealt with the stress of waiting and what worked to combat the anxiety.
Waiting for results is something I have been intimately familiar with of late. I obsess. I imagine all possible disastrous outcomes and it drives me crazy when people tell me not to worry. I always thought that, maybe, worrying was my coping mechanism. It turns out I am not that far off.
People who worry deal much better with negative outcomes than those who don’t, and are much more elated if the news is positive. “One definition of waiting well is not having negative emotions. But not going through that thinking process leaves you less prepared to receive the news. That’s the paradox, the counterintuitive part of the findings,” said Julie K. Norem, the author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking,” and a professor of psychology at Wellesley. So. There.
As far as keeping worry at bay, it turns out active pursuits such as cleaning your closet or playing video games work much better than passive ones like watching tv. In the long run, though, nothing really works and your mind will always travel back to what you are worrying about. Which, apparently, is not so bad after all.