Learning how to worry can be really valuable for us and the people / world around us. This guide is about why this is and how we might do it.
What is worry?
Worry (or fear) is the ‘we should do something about this’ emotion. It’s an emotion which says ‘we / someone else / the world needs protection.’ It is the emotion that asks for care and attention.
Like with most other emotions, for example anger or sadness, worry gets a bad reputation. But there are no good or bad emotions, just emotions. Learning to be us involves learning how to do emotions in ways that are valuable to us, to the people around us, and for the world generally.
Anxiety and worry
There is a difference between anxiety and worry. We could say that worry is something which we all experience and it’s usually in response to something that is happening.
However we can also be anxious about things that aren’t happening, or didn’t happen, or might happen but probably won’t. We might also be anxious quite a lot of the time for many weeks or months at a time. This anxiety is something more to do with mental health and illness, which this website doesn’t cover. For more on dealing with anxiety go to Young Minds.
Worrying is an emotion that you can experience with a start, middle, and end.
- An event or a thought happens which makes us worried.
- We feel affected by it in our bodies (for me, I feel tight in my shoulders, my jaw tenses – what about you?),
- Our brains scramble to make sense of it (what or who am I worried about and why?),
- We make a plan to deal with it (check in on someone, make a donation, make sure I’m wearing matching socks this time).
This is all a lot easier for me to write down than to do in practice, maybe that’s the same for you too. I think this comes from how we judge emotions as being good or bad and what we are taught about our ‘selves’ and how we should criticise and monitor our emotional states.
How old is your brain?
Not to sound patronising, but if you are under 25 there’s a good chance that I am better than you at worrying.* This is because my prefrontal cortex is more highly developed than yours.
In incredibly basic terms, the prefrontal cortex is part of the brain that makes sense of worry. This bit of the brain takes longer to develop. However, the part of our brain that is responsible for how we respond or how we are affected by worry, (the amygdala) develops much earlier.
This is all a massive over-simplification, and our brains work in lots of different ways for lots of different reasons but it’s just to say, you might not always be great at worrying. Some people are going to be better at it than others because of age, how their brain works, and how much practice they’ve had at worrying.
Learning how to worry, and learning how to experience any emotion, is part of growing up. It’s something that we get better at the more we do. Psychologists might also say that this builds on our ‘I amness’, our sense of self. Tuning into emotions, feeling them, and making use of them, is always better for us than turning away from them.
* There is also a very good chance I can beat you at table tennis. #OnceAYouthWorker
Who we worry for
Worry is a necessary and useful emotion at all levels of existence.
- We might worry for ourselves. Perhaps we need to take care of our health a bit more. Visit a sexual health centre or do some self care generally.
- Maybe we worry about friends. Are they in healthy relationships? Do they need support? Are they looking after themselves? What can we pay attention to in our relationship?
- Perhaps we worry about our communities. Are they welcoming or friendly enough? Is there bullying? Is there enough care?
- And we might worry about the world. The climate. War. Injustice. Oppression. Poverty.
There’s a lot that is actually happening in all aspects of our lives that we might worry about. So much so that we might think we should be worrying all the time. That’s not the right thing to do. But it’s also not right not to worry at all. Remember, worrying is the ‘call for care’ emotion.
Worrying about the world
There is an increase in worry over the last couple of decades and a lot of the reason for this is that we have more to worry about. A lot of people are feeling less secure, less well off, and less well looked after. Added to this is the political upheaval we’ve had lately in the UK (and US), the poorly managed coronavirus (in many countries), and we now also have a very scary war in Ukraine.
It’s perfectly rational (maybe, morally correct) to worry about all of these things. They all require care, attention, ‘doing something about’, that’s what the emotion is telling us. It’s worth noting governments choosing not to care has put us in very worrying times.
Being worried about world events might not always feel like the most useful thing to do on an individual level. But it is still useful and important. First of all, it’s an act of love. Our ability to feel love for humankind (and non-humankind) is just as valid as loving your bae or your bestie. There’s more than one kind of love and this is an example of agape.
Secondly, let your worry lead you to other people who also think that we need more care and attention in the world. Joining progessive groups who want to reduce how much worry and stress there is in the world can be a way to make use of the emotion.
Where is it in your body?
Like other emotions we might feel it in our body before we are able to put words to it. The more you get used to tuning into your body the better you will get at noticing where worry affects you first. My yoga teacher has some really great videos that help you to practise this.
Allow time for it
Give yourself some time in the day or week to worry about something. Set an alarm on your phone. Perhaps put on some soothing music, or stare out of the window, and try to give yourself some time to process your thoughts. Is your worry telling you something valuable? Do you need to make a plan? Does something or someone need your care and attention?
Take your temperature
If it gets too much, or you are starting to feel stressed, then it’s totally okay to just step away from the feeling. Get grounded and try and distract yourself for a bit. I really like this article from Love Uncommon about this.
Ration your news
If you are worried about something in the news (eg Ukraine) it’s a good idea to ration yourself. Platforms and capitalist news media love wars, because there is an endless supply of (dis)information and opinions. If you are looking at your phone, or TV, and your body has frozen, or you are disengaged from your body, there’s a good chance you’re having a stress reaction. Choose a reliable news source and watch one news bulletin a day. Maybe there’s one or two good reporters you trust on twitter, just look at what they say.
Write it down
Writing down your worries helps you to make sense of them and order them. It might also prevent them going round and round in your head. Putting them on page might also make them containable and can give you some more clues about what you need to do with it.
Normalising it with other people
It’s easy to shut the emotion of worrying down when you are with other people. Probably because we are disciplining ourselves to be joyful and upbeat at all times. But this means that we miss out on the opportunity to provide care and attention for our loved ones. It also shuts down the possibilities for collective action too.
Here’s a great guide for parents if your kids are worried about the war in Ukraine.
This zine on staying with feelings by Meg-John Barker is really great (and inspired a lot of this).
Dean Burnett has written some really useful books on mental health and the brain. His latest one is called Psycho-Logical and it’s really great.
I’d also recommend reading The Care Manifesto by the Care Collective
© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here