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In praise of worry: Why fretting can be good for you

Australian rugby league football coach, Ricky Stuart.
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Australian rugby league football coach, Ricky Stuart.

Don't worry, be happy and you might just miss out on an important part of your psychology.

Worry can play an important role in life, and doesn't have to be destructive or futile, argues Kate Sweeny, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She's the co-author of "The surprising upsides of worry," recently published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

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Her analysis argues fretting can encourage behaviors that lead to better health, more success and greater well-being.

"Much like most negative emotions, worry does have a function. We probably wouldn't have evolved to worry if there was no reason to do it," Sweeny told NBC News BETTER.

'The Mindy Project' on Fox.
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'The Mindy Project' on Fox.

"When it comes to worry, that function is pretty clear: It draws our attention to the fact that there's something we maybe should be doing or preparing for or preventing, and it gives us the motivation to do something about that."

That can lead to some important choices. If you worry about a car accident, you'll wear your seatbelt. If you worry about skin cancer, you'll wear sunscreen. Worry prompts you to do something that might be inconvenient, but protective.

It also makes you prepare: If you fret about a job interview, you'll spend more time preparing for it. Worry tells you a situation is serious and keeps it prominent in your mind so that you take action.

"If we don't ever worry about our future, we're likely to put ourselves in some significant danger and risk," Sweeny said.

Even when you don't have control over what's about to happen, worry can serve as an emotional buffer. The feeling is so unbelievably unpleasant that, at the very least, anything that happens in the end will feel better in comparison, she noted. Bracing for the worst can actually dull bad news and make good news feel even better.

The conclusion of Sweeny's analysis: Worrying the right amount is better than not worrying at all.

Easier said than done.

We're all wired to worry, though how much we actually do depends on our genes, parents and personal mindset, said Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and author of the new book "The Stress-Proof Brain."

She agrees worry can have an upside, but warns that too much of it can lead to problems. About 85 percent of the things people worry about never happen, she said.

Here's how to worry better:

Avoid the unhealthy kind

"If worry interferes with your life, if you can't focus and concentrate, if it's spoiling your pleasure in life, if you're procrastinating because you're so worried about how things will go, if you're just keyed up all the time and can't relax, if you're worrying about the same thing over and over and you can't put it aside, that would be unproductive," Greenberg said.

If you catastrophize a situation — or dwell on the worst-case scenarios that might happen — that's just going to make you feel more anxious and helpless, she added.

Don't confuse worry and rumination

Worry means focusing on future negative events that you can anticipate or prepare for, Sweeny's analysis notes. It draws attention to opportunities. Rumination, on the other hand, involves dwelling on past events and mistakes. It's an unhealthy loop of thoughts that can fuel depression, according to the American Psychological Association.

Prepare a checklist

When Sweeny feels worried, she runs through a mental checklist.

First, she asks herself: "Is there anything I could do to ensure or increase the likelihood of a good outcome?"

If not, she asks: "Is there anything I could do to prepare for a bad outcome if it occurs?"

If you've exhausted all of those possibilities, all you can do is distract yourself, Sweeny said. Failing that, try to take some comfort in the fact that whatever happens, at least you won't have to worry about it anymore once the outcome comes to pass.

"Our brains don't like ambiguity, they prefer certainty," Greenberg added.

Limit the amount of time you worry

Try to establish "worry periods" — or specific times when you're allowed to worry for 15 minutes, Greenberg suggested. When you start to fret, tell yourself to put it off until 10 a.m., noon — whatever your preferred time. That way, you get a bit more control and you're training yourself to worry only at certain times.

Don't get fused with your thoughts

Just because you think something is going to happen, doesn't mean it will. Ask yourself: Is this true? Helpful? Get some distance from your thoughts and practice mindfulness, Greenberg advised. Try to connect with your senses in the present moment. Feel your body in the chair, walk barefoot outside or name three things in the room.

Distract, rather than suppress, worry

When you try to suppress feelings, they can come back stronger, both Greenberg and Sweeny noted. That strategy can also backfire in other ways.

"Feelings are there for a reason. They're informative for us," Greenberg said.

"To the extent that worry is telling you there's something you should be paying attention to, then ignoring it is to your peril," Sweeny said.

Let worry motivate you, but if you find it unproductive, try to take your mind off things by getting engaged in other activities: Focus on work, do something enjoyable or try a stress-relieving coloring book for adults. You can't worry and focus on getting a task done at the same time.

This article originally appeared on NBC News