Are Stress and Worry Good or Bad for You? It Depends on How You Cope.

A new study says people who worry are better prepared than those who don't — but that's not the whole story.


A new study published in the journal Emotion observed law students waiting to hear back about bar exam results, and found that those who were prone to anxiety handled the outcome better than those who were more optimistic. To conclude that worrying is good for you, however, would be somewhat deceptive as the coping strategies used by optimists were as unhealthy and maladaptive as those of the pessimistic group. Excessive worry and bad coping techniques are both harmful, even if it appears that the worriers handled the results better.

Those who claimed not to be worried distracted themselves with activities both passive (watching TV, drinking) and active (exercise, yoga). Distracting oneself from worrisome thoughts is a way of suppressing them, and it only leads to further rumination. Take, for instance, the famous Harvard-led white bear study, in which participants were divided into two groups: One was asked to not think about white bears, and one was told they could think about white bears all they wanted. The group who was asked not to think about them were three times more likely to think about them. Suppression and distracting activities don’t work. The best way to quell anxiety is to look right into the beast’s mouth and accept that you feel fear. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being optimistic, as long as you don’t deny or hide from the negative emotions.

Our rumination continually activates the nervous system, which releases adrenaline and cortisol — helpful if we are in a moment of physical danger; not helpful if the danger is only mental and repetitive.

The New York Times covered this study, and imparted the advice “Don’t be happy. Worry.” Their perspective was that since the pessimistic group reacted better to both good and bad news, then worrying is actually a good thing. It’s not. When we worry excessively, the body is in a heightened state of fight, flight, or freeze. Our rumination continually activates the nervous system, which releases adrenaline and cortisol — helpful if we are in a moment of physical danger; not helpful if the danger is only mental and repetitive. Activating the sympathetic nervous system regularly has many documented long-term negative effects on the mind and body. The pessimistic participants in the study handled both good and bad news better than those who suppressed it because they admitted they were worried. But that shouldn’t be an endorsement for stress and worry. More accurately, it illustrates that as bad as stress is, pretending you are not stressed is even worse.

A study on proactive coping done by Stony Brook University showed that “aspiring for a positive future rather than preventing a negative one is distinctly predictive of well-being.”

Not all worry is bad; there are ways to use it to your benefit. In the Emotion-published study, some of the participants used what’s known as “proactive coping,” where one pinpoints what they need to succeed and also prepares for eventualities. A study on proactive coping done by Stony Brook University showed that “aspiring for a positive future rather than preventing a negative one is distinctly predictive of well-being.” This is in keeping with the philosophy behind mental contrasting, a tool used in goal-setting that asks you to predict setbacks and negative outcomes, which can actually help you achieve your goals. Imagining setbacks helps you prepare for them. Worrying about them does not.

Chronic stress is genuinely terrible for you, and so is glossing over the problem. There are a multitude of solutions to maintaining a healthy relationship with worrisome thoughts, from meditation to scheduled worry time. We can only find peace and equanimity when we look at our fears and allow them to exist, without getting too attached or identified. Our amygdala may be firing off telling us danger is imminent, but it’s our choice how to respond to that. A little worry and a lot of regulation can help you live a longer, happier life. Or, as we say in New York: "Eh, donworrybouded."

If you are experiencing some stress, it might be better to indulge those stress-causing activities rather than limit them. As Kelly McGonigal explains, the things that cause us stress also provide meaning in our lives.

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PHOTO CREDIT: FPG/Archive 

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