Why We Worry
All of us worry at some time or another. Although occasional worry can be a completely normal part of the human experience, many people struggle with unhealthy worry. Understanding the neuroscientific basis of worry can help you learn to overcome your worry when it is negatively impacting your life.
What Is Worry?
Everyone has had the subjective experience of worrying. Worry is that little voice in your head saying, “but what if something goes wrong? Are you sure you’ve thought this through? Maybe it would be better to avoid this.” For some people, worry can involve long trails of thoughts about possible events and their negative outcomes. Others might realize they are worrying when they feel troubled, uneasy, have stomach pains, or experience a tightness in their chest.
Although everyone worries sometimes, certain people are particularly vulnerable to worry. If you are a “worrier,” it could be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder or another anxiety condition. Remember that if worry negatively impacts your day-to-day life, it is beyond the range of normal, healthy worry.
Why Our Brains Are Built for Worry
Feeling worried is unpleasant, so why do we even have this experience? The reason lies within the evolutionary wiring of our brains. Evolutionarily speaking, we have several layers of brain structures that evolved at different times. The deepest structures, which regulate breathing, heart rate, and brain activity, are the oldest “hindbrain” structures. The “midbrain” structures, which includes a cluster of brain areas known as the limbic system, evolved after the hindbrain. Finally, the cerebral cortex, which is the layer of brain that surrounds the midbrain and hindbrain, evolved most recently.
People sometimes refer to the limbic system structures in the midbrain as the “lizard brain” because it has features shared with lizards. This “lizard brain” includes an area known as the amygdala, which is responsible for processing threatening information. In evolutionary time, the amygdala was important for recognizing lions or other humans who could be threatening. Now, our amygdalae work overtime and can lead us to fear perfectly normal situations. This irrational fear is what we experience as worry.
Now, it is important to note that worry can sometimes be adaptive, which is why we still have a functioning amygdala. However, when our “lizard brain” causes us to worry, we feel fearful and paralyzed. We also tend to make emotional decisions rather than rational ones. Furthermore, chronic worry can make you more likely to attend to negative information in the future. That fuels the worry cycle and can keep you stuck in your worry.
How to Overcome Worry in Your Life
When you read that your brain is wired for worry, it can feel as though it is impossible to control your worry. However, this could not be farther from the truth! The cerebral cortex, which is evolutionarily most recent, is what makes us human. One particular region, known as the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for weighing decisions and evaluating evidence. Fortunately, there are a number of connections between the prefrontal cortex and limbic system. That means that when you begin to worry, the prefrontal cortex can put the brakes on by using reason and logic to stop the worry cycle.
So how do you make that happen? The first step is to recognize when you are worrying. Take note of your thought processes, such as, “I’m not good enough” or “What will happen next?” or “How will I manage this?” Those signs of worry let us know that we have a problem that needs to be solved.
Once you have identified the problem, let your prefrontal cortex take control. Begin by weighing the evidence: what is your evidence in support of your feared outcome? What is the evidence against? Think about the most likely scenario, and make decisions accordingly. This cuts the worry cycle and restores your ability to make effective choices for yourself.