Yesterday I was on the phone with my wife and I accidentally hung up on her. She was on her way home from running an errand so I didn’t call her back thinking she’d be home soon. A few minutes later she called me and said, “you didn’t call me back — I was worried you fell down the steps.” Reacting as she did is commonplace: we all worry and catastrophize. This notion is captured perfectly by seventeenth-century French philosopher Montaigne who said, ‘My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.”
We worry because it is how we’re wired. Because more bad things can happen to us than good ones, our ancestors who worried had a survival advantage. This was especially true in pre-modern times. Rolf Dobelli, in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, notes the following:
One stupid mistake, and you were dead. Everything could lead to your rapid departure from the game of life—carelessness on the hunt, an inflamed tendon, exclusion from the group, and so on. People who were reckless or gung-ho died before they could pass their genes on to the next generation. Those who remained, the cautious, survived. We are their descendants.
Thus, historically, we enhanced our survival and reproductive chances when we prioritized threats over opportunities.
But most of what we worry about never happens. For example, in his book The Worry Cure, psychologist Robert Leahy describes a study that examined how many of our worries come to fruition. In the study, participants were asked to write down their worries about the coming two-week period and predict what would happen. The result? 85% of the things that they worried about never happened. And of the 15% that did occur, 79% of those worries turned out better than expected. Running the math results in just 3% of worries fully coming to fruition. Of course, this is just one study. But its general conclusion is sound: most of what we worry about never happens. We’re wired to worry.
Personally, I’ve found this study comforting since I read about it six months ago. Whenever I’m worried about something I stop and remind myself that the odds are that things will turn out okay. Another thing that helps when I worry is The Relaxing Breath.