top of page
  • Dr. Terri Bacow

The Top 5 Myths People Have About Anxiety and Worry

Worry does not actually help you be more productive or protect you from danger.

Many of us (often subconsciously) believe that worrying actually works for us in some way. We might even think feeling anxious is necessary to help us get things done or be productive. For example, many believe that worrying intensely about an upcoming test or presentation helps us perform better and that we wouldn’t do well otherwise.


Psychologists call these beliefs about anxiety “meta-worry” because when we have these ideas, they involve metacognition, a psychological term that describes being aware of one’s thoughts and thought processes and having beliefs or ideas about them.


Yet, the idea that worrying about something will help improve the outcome of a situation in any way is a myth. It is simply not true (read further to understand why). Here are the top five misconceptions that people have about worrying:


  1. Worrying will help you get things done and accomplish more in life. Example: “If I don’t keep thinking about this deadline, I won’t meet it.”

  2. Worrying will protect you from danger. Example: “Worrying about my exam will prevent it from going poorly.”

  3. Any sign of worry or anxiety that you experience indicates a real threat. Example: “I have a strong feeling she is mad at me, so she must be mad at me.”

  4. Worrying a lot will damage your body or health. Example: “My worry is going to give me a heart attack or an ulcer.”

  5. Worry is uncontrollable. Example: “I am unable to control my anxiety — there is nothing I can do about it.”

These meta-worry beliefs are incredibly common yet often completely faulty. Here’s why:

While worry can sometimes be a little bit motivating, there are far more effective ways to motivate yourself (i.e., self-encouragement). Further, you are absolutely capable of being productive even if you are completely calm (more likely, in fact!)


For example, research shows that having self-compassion (being kind and encouraging towards yourself) is far more effective than self-criticism in motivating behavior change. The only thing that worrying and negative thinking actually accomplish is increased agitation and the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Instead of helping us do more, worrying just stresses us out.


Further, worrying does not influence the outcome of events. Worry most certainly does not protect us from danger because thoughts do not have any impact on the physical world. (Just try thinking, “Stand up! Stand up!” repeatedly. When you find that your body hasn’t moved, you will realize that thoughts do not lead to change unless you actively decide to change.)


In the same vein, thinking or worrying about something does not make it true. (Imagine you thought that purple was the best color. Does that make this a fact?) Worries are just thoughts - more similar to opinions than hard evidence. For example, if you have a thought that someone doesn’t like you, this simply does not mean it is true.


Anxiety often involves emotional reasoning rather than logical reasoning and is often loaded with bias and subjectivity. Even though your thoughts and feelings are very strong, this does not mean they reflect reality.


Worry itself is not dangerous or indicative of a real threat. It may be annoying and uncomfortable, but it does not harm the body. While chronic unrelenting stress is not ideal for long-term physical health, anxiety itself is not harmful. The presence of excessive anxiety and worry merely indicates that our nervous systems are responding to something we perceive to be worrisome, not that the situation actually warrants worry or is in and of itself dangerous.


Moreover, you have far more control over your worry than you think. Psychological science shows us that while you cannot eliminate anxiety completely, you can manage and cope with it. Numerous evidence-based therapies out there have been found to help people measurably reduce anxiety and worry, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).


CBT therapists teach concrete coping skills such as progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, reframing negative thoughts, and behavioral techniques for countering avoidance, all of which have been shown to be highly effective worry management strategies. If you are feeling helpless against anxiety, remind yourself that there are concrete actions you can take that will help you feel better.


The upshot? It is not uncommon to feel attached to your worry because you may superstitiously believe that it helps or protects you in some way. It may feel difficult to let go of it. The alternative? Try permitting yourself to do so, and you will find nothing bad will happen. In fact, you will feel calmer and more at ease. It may not feel easy, but take a break from worry (even a short break) and shift your mind towards self-encouragement. Challenge your negative thinking and consider how your anxious thoughts are subjective (and biased). The science of stress and anxiety support this approach.


What is worry good for? Absolutely nothing!


Portions of this post have been excerpted from my book, Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.


Blog as published in Psychology Today on 4/24/23.

Comments


bottom of page