Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Benefits of Worry

If worry is an integral part of what makes us human, can it also serve a positive function? Psychologist Graham Davey of the University of Sussex in England was one of the first experts to suggest potential plus sides to worry. In a 1994 study Davey explored a range of consequences stemming from this natural tendency; he found people reported that although fretting can make things worse, it can also be constructive, helping to motivate them to take action, resolve problems and reduce anxiety.

More recent research supports the idea that elevated levels of worry can improve performance. In 2005 psychologist Maya Tamir, then at Stanford University, showed that neurotic students were more likely to believe that increasing their level of worry when working on a cognitively demanding task, such as a test, would allow them to excel. Worrying before the test indeed helped the more neurotic individuals do better, whereas the pretest level of worry did not particularly influence the overall experience or outcomes for the less neurotic participants. Not only can worry benefit performance, but it may also encourage action. A 2007 study in the journal Cognition and Emotion revealed that smokers may be more convinced to quit if they worry about the risks of smoking. The promising results prompted the study authors to suggest potential strategies, such as having doctors remind smokers about the downsides, capitalizing on the worry-motivation relationship to encourage smokers to dispense with cigarettes.

Although it is difficult to determine the precise line between healthy, beneficial worry and unhealthy, detrimental worry, Michel Dugas, a psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, likes to think of worry as a bell curve whereby moderate levels are associated with improved functioning, but excess levels are associated with a decline in performance.

Christine Calmes, a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Capitol Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in Baltimore, believes that successful people operate a little higher on the worry scale. As long as fretting doesn’t get the better of someone, it can work to his or her advantage. “It’s all about how people cope with the worry,” Calmes says. “If it’s incapacitating, then it’s not okay. But if worrying motivates people to go above and beyond—put in longer hours, attend to details that others may miss—then it’s a good thing.”

Source of Information : Scientific American Mind November-December 2009

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