Although worrying does not feel good, it may have surprising benefits, when done in just the right amount, two psychology researchers argue in a new editorial.
For example, worrying may motivate people to engage in behaviors that are potentially beneficial to their health, the researchers said. People who are worried may slather on sunscreen to help prevent skin cancer, and women may get regular mammograms to screen for breast cancer, the researchers said.
"Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile," lead author Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, said in a statement.
However, the relationship between worry and behaviors that are potentially beneficial to people's health is complex and seems to depend on how much a person worries, the authors noted. [9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health]
Previous research has shown that "women who reported moderate amounts of worry, compared to women reporting relatively low or high levels of worry, are more likely to get screened for cancer," Sweeny said. "It seems that both too much and too little worry can interfere with motivation, but the right amount of worry can motivate without paralyzing."
In the editorial, the authors looked at research that had examined both the downsides and upsides of worry. For example, studies have linked excessive worrying with such downsides as anxiety, fatigue, trouble concentrating and sleep problems, the researchers wrote in the editorial, published April 18 in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
However, other research has shown that worrying can also have positive effects on behavior, the researchers said. Worrying may not only motivate people to take action, as in using sunscreen, but also may allow people to better prepare themselves for negative experiences in their lives, and develop a greater appreciation for positive experiences in their lives.
For example, if a person is worrying and bracing for the worst in a certain situation, and then if that person receives the bad news they have been bracing for, the person's disappointment will be mitigated by their worrying. However, if that same person receives good news instead of the bad news they were expecting, then the person may experience more excitement than if he or she had not been worried in the first place, the researchers said. [5 Wacky Ways to Quantify Happiness]
The new paper "flies in the face of what a lot of people may assume when it comes to worry," said Simon Rego, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. However, the idea that worry may have an upside is definitely valid, said Rego, who was not involved in writing the editorial.
Moreover, there are other psychological states, and emotions, that may feel unpleasant to the person who is experiencing them, but that can nonetheless be useful to this person. For example, experiencing justifiable anger may motivate people to "defend themselves or correct a sense of injustice," Rego told Live Science. If a person sees someone else key-scratching his or her car, then experiencing anger would motivate the car owner to do something to rectify the injustice that is happening, he said.
Originally published on Live Science.