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Do Worry; Be Happy

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I believe that I was born a worrier.

When I was younger, I didn’t worry about the effects of my worrying.  But as I got older, I began to listen to what other people were saying:

“You’ll be all gray,” my mom warned me.

“Try not to worry; it raises your cortisol levels,” my doctor advised.

“There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control,” my spouse espoused.

I knew they were right, so I taught myself a new approach to worrying. I found ways to calm my mind, to free myself of anxiety.  I take time each day to let go of negative thoughts as I concentrate on my breathing. I even programmed my cell phone with a gratitude alarm—soothing harp music reminds me to focus on the many blessings in my life.

Until last week, I was satisfied with my progress.

Then I learned a new piece of data from the field of Positive Psychology, and it has me questioning my fundamental assumption about worrying. Apparently, when we worry the brain releases endorphins.  These neurotransmitters—which are also produced when we exercise, eat spicy food and engage in sexual activity—give us a sense of power or well-being.  From the perspective of evolutionary biology, it makes sense that we react to stressful situations with a heightened sense of strength: a so-called “endorphin rush” would have protected us from being eaten by predators on the savannah millions of years ago. While it seems counter-intuitive, it may be true that worrying actually make us feel better.

I hesitate to write this, because I am not sure I understand it. I consulted my friend, a neuropsychologist, to research the matter more fully and she has reassured me that the science makes sense, at least with regard to short-term worrying.  People who suffer from chronic anxiety, however, are likely not enjoying an endorphin rush or its attendant sense of well-being.  Different people respond differently to worrying.

My learned response is to acknowledge my worries and then dispense with them.  I believe this approach has given me mastery over my worrier brain.  I have no scientific evidence to support this claim, though I have enough gray hair to prove that I’ve been working on it for a while.

Moving forward, I will continue to adjust my ballast against the everyday worries that inevitably creep into my brain.  In doing so, I will be more aware that I must also counter the biological thrill of worrying.  And maybe I’ll allow myself a few moments to feel the endorphin rush; to be happier about worrying.

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Comments (15)

I seriously do not have the time to worry about whether or not worrying is a good thing or a bad thing. However, if it makes you happier…

🙂

Your comment makes me happier! I needed a good laugh, so thanks. 🙂

You both made me happy!

Likewise! Who would have thought that the assigned reading would lead to such fruitful discussions!

Oy – now I’m worried that I’m not getting the most out of my worry. I’ll have to dwell on that a while….

You are too funny…don’t dwell on it. We agreed that those who dwell on their anxiety squander the endorphins, right?

Worry. Working out. Spicy foods. Sex. Dark Chocolate. I gravitate to them all. So, it’s true what I’ve long suspected about myself: Hello. My name is Corey-Jan and I’m an Endorphin Junkie.

C-J, just reading your comment gave me an endorphin kick! Glad you feel this blog is a “safe space” in which to reveal your true self.

What helps me is to keep the problem I’m worrying about in perspective. My mother-in-law had a favorite saying that went like this, “In 5 years what difference will this (what you are worrying about) make”.

Jill, Wise mothers and mothers-in-law have told me the same thing. When the cognitive response kicks in, I can reach that kind of conclusion about my worries. However, in the initial moments of discovery of the worry/anxiety/concern, there is only the affective (emotional) response. It’s good to know that the affective response includes an endorphin rush. Maybe that is what gets my brain motivated toward problem-solving…

I’ve believed for a long time that I use worrying as a coping mechanism because I function best on adrenaline. (My husband accuses me of looking for things to worry about.) And it can be an effective tool in certain situations–like school. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that the overwhelming majority of A students are worriers. I sometimes even worry that one of my kids does not worry enough about tests. But, the problem is that once you turn on worry, it is hard to turn it off. And while it can be a great call to action, in a situation where you have little or know control, it is highly unproductive. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn: worrying about my own grades enhanced my performance, where as worrying about my kid’s grades has no positive effects.

So, true! That burst of adrenaline (or endorphins, as the case may be) can be motivating when you can “do something” about the thing you are worried about. But in cases where the worrying is difficult to “turn off,” as you so aptly put it, the long-term anxiety that can result seems not too healthy.

Here is a great companion article from The New York Times by Daniel Smith, whose forthcoming book is titled, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. Just added it to my wish list.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/understanding-my-anxiety.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

This certainly explains why worrying is so addictive. It is the Endorphin Rush! During the last decade there is a phrase that has stuck with me tenaciously: Fear (worry) is the lack of Faith. The active part of faith is prayer. It certainly motivates me to work on the things I can change. But prayer helps me tremendously when things are out of my control. Prayer for the healing and insight of those that can affect change helps me really let it go. The byproduct of prayer must also be a tremendous endorphin release.

Yes, Carol, there has been much written about the endorphin release that accompanies prayer/meditation. And I, too, find that prayer helps me let go of my worries. Exercise that gets my heart pumping helps, as well.

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