We worry ourselves sick a lot of the time. Some of us worry ourselves to death. Why worry so much?
Worrying is a natural mental and emotional activity, an easy habit to fall into. Our brains are designed (or evolved) to pay attention to danger. When the lion or wolf attacks, we need to be prepared to run like hell, so fear prepares our bodies to do so by releasing hormones that direct the blood flow to the running muscles and change our breathing for the emergency state.
Our minds are also changed by the fear, so that we stay focused on the danger and the best direction to run for survival. Memories of the dangerous circumstances become tagged with fear so that we recognize the signs of danger and become automatically alert. When we hear the wolf howling nearby or smell the lion lurking unseen in the tall grass, some of the same fear alerts us to the possible danger and prepares us to run soon if necessary. The fear also keeps our mind focused on the possible lion in the tall grass and keeps us awake and ready to run even if we can’t see, hear or smell the threat. And we sometimes dream of lions or wolves and wake up in a cold sweat from a panicky run in the forests of the night.
Our ancestors may have begun dreaming about lions half a million years ago or more. One of them, awake in the night after a lion dream, began planning how to stay safe without having to run like hell. Anticipating danger and planning for it became a part of the worry process. Not only did the fear prepare us for running, it kept us uncomfortably focused on the danger until we came up with a solution to the danger. Once we learned how to use fire and noticed that wolves and lions stayed away from fire, we kept the fire going at night to keep the danger away. This required planning and a certain amount of work.
If a Neanderthal named A-Rock became too comfortable, didn’t gather enough wood, fell asleep and let his fire die during the night, he was eaten by the wolves and lions and didn’t live to pass on his genes or his easy going ways. Neanderthal, B-Rock, was more anxious. He could remember the scary dreams of the lion attacks and his fear helped him stay awake to keep his fire going with the wood he and his family had gathered during the day. So he survived and had a large family of descendants and passed on his wisdom and his worrying ways to subsequent generations, along with his name.
Now that we have solved the wolf and lion problem to the point where we have to protect lions and wolves from extinction, we have other things to worry about. We worry about failing the test, or about our boyfriend leaving us for another girl, or about being caught doing something embarrassing or wrong, or one of the many social dangers in our modern lives.
These worries activate the same areas of the brain and the same hormones we needed to prepare us to run like hell or stay awake keeping the lions away. Over the millennia, we have gotten very, very good at worrying. Though it still isn’t comfortable, it has served us well in motivating us to plan to avoid disaster. The more we worry, the better we get at it. Some people are world class worriers, while others don’t spend enough time planning and worrying, so they do flunk the test and have to get by with the consequences of that. But these are not deadly consequences, so some of us survive as more easy going types, while others are master worriers.
Master worriers serve a purpose in society. They sometimes keep us safe by standing guard while the rest of us go about our business. Sometimes master worriers stir up trouble by shouting about dangers that are not immanent or even likely. Furthermore, each of us has our own personal version of the master worrier who stands guard at times when necessary or shouts at us about unlikely dangers. Not only have we inherited the ability to worry from our successful ancestors, we learn early in life the habit of worrying and some of us become little private master worriers while some become great and constant master worriers.
The problem is that the habits and hormones of fear and worrying are physically and mentally stressful and lead to chronic physical and mental illnesses when we are exposed to them too often and for too long. Also, worrying is not fun. So the life of a master worrier can be shorter and more painful than it has to be.
Some of us have learned to manage worrying so that it does not interfere with the joys of life. A few have become gurus on non-worrying. But for many, the inherited ability to worry and the self-reinforcing habit of worrying becomes a burden. In upcoming articles, I will address the problems with worrying and some of the solutions to those problems.