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Why we sweat the small stuff

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 12:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

My mom frequently says that I was born to worry: She calls me a “stress monkey” every time I call to complain about school.

I think my mother enjoys telling people about my worrying ways. She recently said that one of her friends no longer inquires about my health but simply asks what I am freaking out about this week. It’s usually something to do with the next assignment that I just don’t think I can finish on time and still get a good grade and thus maintain course to graduation, etc.

I’m fairly certain that everyone has something to worry about, be it money, children, health, terrorism, global warming or the sun’s inevitable expansion and engulfment of the Earth.

And no matter what, it’s probably not all that good for you to worry. My constant worry about failing out of graduate school and ruining my life — which currently manifests itself as insomnia, forgetfulness and a pathological immunity to any deadline — is probably shaving years off my life.

And I am not the only one worrying: According to the National Institutes of Health,  40 million Americans over 18 will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder each year.

So, why do humans worry?  Like most quirks of the brain, it goes back about 1.8 million years ago to the Pleistocene Epoch and our evolutionary ancestors — early members of the genus Homo — who began evolving bigger brains capable of more complex risk assessment and long-term planning. There’s a conflict in the brain’s priorities: automatically maintaining alertness in case of immediate danger versus thoughtfully analyzing risks. In everyday life, humans need both systems of risk assessment to survive. It’s the mundane version of the “fight or flight” response:  Should you run from danger or stand up and fight it?

By this standard, however, I should be much more terrified of, say, an immediate and physical danger such as getting into a fatal car accident than I am of more abstract dangers such as writing a terrible paper for class. But yes, it is the abstract that I worry about, no matter how bad a driver I really am.

Worry is the space between the unknown and the fear of not having the ability to deal or cope with the unknown.

"It is what humans do with simple fear once it reaches the part of their brain called the cerebral cortex. We make fear complex, adding anticipation, memory, imagination and emotion," Edward M. Hallowell wrote in a "Psychology Today" article titled "Fighting Life's 'What Ifs.'"

Thinking intently about fear doesn’t seem like such a good idea, and I am inclined to say that it is not. The wisdom of the ages certainly doesn’t think worry is positive.

“Worry gives a small thing a big shadow,” a Swedish proverb states.

Mark Twain said, “I’ve seen many troubles in my time, only half of which ever came true.”

And Benjamin Franklin said, “Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.” 

“It is what it is,” my mother tells me over the phone.

And after 10 minutes of spewing my worries and insecurities and phobias about graduate school, I usually say, “What? Me? Worried? No way, Mom.”

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.

 


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