Hurrying and Worrying: Your Brain Doesn't Differentiate


Do you worry even though things are going well? Perhaps time pressures are to blame.

A discussion about worrying and anxiety on a recent talk show pointed out an interesting paradox. Most folks reading this article are healthier, safer, and wealthier than people have been at any time in the world’s history, and yet research indicates a significant increase in worrying and anxiety problems in relatively affluent populations. Since excessive worrying can lead to a number of other problems including loss of sleep, appetite disturbance, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a steady erosion of self-esteem, it would be good to know how we might reverse this unhappy trend.


Though it may be true that we are safer, healthier, and generally better off than at any time in history, we are also more rushed, more hurried. With advances in communication and transportation, we can do more in a single day than would have been imaginable in the past. And because we can do more, we seem to want to, or to feel that we should. With the proliferation of email, voice mail, cell phones, and other devices, we tend to expect a quicker response from others, and we believe that others expect a quicker response from us. With a lot more happening in each of our lives, the traffic is worse, and we find ourselves jammed up on the highways, both paved and electronic, and impatient with the length of our commute and the speed of our internet connection!!

What has this got to do with worrying?

Though our technology has evolved very rapidly in the last 50 years, our brains have not (probably a good thing). The brain of today is the same brain our ancestors used to survive in dangerous and primitive conditions 30,000 years ago, and it does not fully distinguish between hurrying and worrying. Worrying is a mental and physical state in which we are alert to danger, anticipating threats, experiencing fear, and preparing to RUN!! Running was and still is the best strategy for many dangers of life under primitive conditions. But it is not necessarily the best response for modern threats and insecurities. Each of us is born with the capacity for fear, the emotion that prepares us to run, but we are not born with the specific knowledge of what is dangerous. [A baby normally recoils from loud noises, but will not automatically know enough to fear a poisonous snake or a hot stove. This has to be learned.] Because danger and fear are neurologically associated with running (hurrying), there is a reciprocal tendency to associate hurrying with fear. As a result of this association, the more hurried we are, the greater the tendency to expect danger. We are inclined to confuse urgency with emergency, and deadlines with deadly threats. Constant hurrying generates a steady trickle of adrenalin, keeping us alert to danger and ready to run, keeping us worrying. 

When there is an obvious problem on which to focus fearful attention, the mind typically latches onto that problem, labeling it for future reference and keeping a sharp (mental) eye on the source of the danger. When there is no obvious or immediate problem, the anxious mind searches our memories and imaginations for potential sources of danger, zooming in on certain "favorite" fears. Fear always gets our attention, and this is necessary for survival when the danger is real. But even when the danger is remembered or imagined, and even when some of the anxiety is an automatic result of too much hurrying, fear still gets our attention and keeps us alert, keeps us worrying.

  • So, as we go about our busy lives, we accidentally train ourselves to worry more. The more we practice hurrying and worrying, the better we get at it, the more automatic it becomes, until it seems as if there is no choice. For some of us, worrying becomes part of our self-image, an uncomfortable fact of life. When it gets particularly bad, we may try to cope with medication, or alcohol or drugs, or any number of compulsive behaviors that offer temporary relief from the chronic worried state.

What can be done?

For individuals with acute and severe anxiety, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional who can assess the problem and recommend appropriate treatment. For those who experience chronic worrying that may be aggravated or reinforced by a frantic hurried lifestyle, it is necessary to break the cycle of hurrying and worrying and learn to slow down. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? No. Chronic worriers have learned their habit well by practicing constantly for a number of years. And some of us are genetically predisposed to higher levels of anxiety to begin with. It is not easy to slow down and sort out the "real" dangers from a thousand and one potential threats. Self-calming is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, it is not a skill many of us will learn in school. Like any skill, it requires a certain amount of trial and error and a lot of practice. One worrier may start by practicing deep rhythmic breathing, because we breathe differently when we are afraid, and deep calm breathing helps to break out of the physiological and emotional state of anxiety. Another may focus on slowing down the pace with which he walks, or drives, consciously counteracting the hurrying habit. Some may find music helps them to shift into a slower, more comfortable state. Others may utilize visual imagery that has a calming effect for them. Stress management gurus encourage busy executives to turn off telephone ringers and strictly limit the amount of time spent responding to email and voicemail. Many find powerful support in traditional religious rituals that embody calming and centering practices and are further reinforced by deeply held values and community. The variety of interventions is almost limitless, and each worrier must experiment and discover which new behaviors work best, then practice, practice, practice until healthier habits are formed. Research in treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder has demonstrated that persistent practice of skills such as these can result in measurable changes in brain function without medication. Cultivating patience and confidence in self-calming skills takes time and persistence. It may be helpful to have a therapist, coach, or support group to help you stick to the program. But in the end, you will encounter another paradox. By slowing down, you will feel like you have more time. 

For more on emotional intelligence skills go to the website of Brock Hansen, LCSW at or check out his book Shame and Anger:The Criticism Connection

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.