Worrying is GOOD for you: Anxiety and sleepless nights are part of the brain’s way of planning ahead

Break up of NationsThe time is 4.06am and I’m wide awake. There’s no light in the bedroom and almost no sound. Outside, the street is as close to dead-of-night silence as a city centre street can be. And yet within my head there’s noise — a churning, repetitive, relentlessly pounding noise. I’m not sick or hallucinating and I have no mental condition that would even vaguely interest a doctor. So what is wrong with me? It’s simple. Like millions of others, I am a worrier and have been for as long as I can remember.

As a child I used to worry about bad things happening at night, sometimes to me but mostly to my parents. Then, as a teenager, my worries turned to exams, my popularity — or lack of it — at school and the minefield of early relationships.

And my worries have kept evolving as I’ve grown older. Money, career, relationships and health — these are the foundation stones of the adult nocturnal fretter and, rather than getting better with age, mine seem to be getting worse. I’m beginning to see what the poet W. H. Auden meant when he wrote: ‘In headaches and in worry, Vaguely life leaks away . . .’

Sometimes in the middle of the night — peak time for worriers, as any sufferer will tell you — when I’m enveloped in the disorientating darkness and feeling extraordinarily alone (despite the cats and my partner lying nearby), I can almost feel my life leaking away, swamped by an ever-rising tide of concerns.

Right now, I’m being plagued by the great ‘what if’ on at least three fronts. There has been this article, for starters. What if I’m unable to get it finished in time? What if it’s not what the editor wants?

Then there’s my imminent departure for a holiday in France that I’m really looking forward to, and yet . . . what if I miss the train? What if I’m delayed by the French strikers? What if the house I’m renting isn’t as it’s described in the brochure?

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the mortgage application I’ve made which seems to have been dragging on and on. What if that vital bank statement hasn’t arrived in the post by the time I go on holiday? And then, what if they can’t email it to me instead?

What if . . . what if . . . what if?

These two little words have been my constant night-time companions — tormentors might be a better word — for almost five decades. And it was the realisation of that truth which prompted me to research the subject of worrying in more depth and indeed to acknowledge, even celebrate, my predisposition. I am a worrier! And there is nothing wrong with that.

I’m certainly not alone: there are millions of us, our numbers swollen by the sheer complexity and demands of modern life. Financial arrangements we don’t understand, careers under constant evaluation, personal lives that can stand or fall with a press of Facebook’s all-powerful ‘Like’ button.

Already at the beck and call of mobile phones and computers that are never turned off, we are scrutinised and assessed as never before. ‘Competition’ and ‘choice’, we are told, are forces for economic good, but you won’t find many worriers who agree. What if I make the wrong choice? No wonder worrying has become the quiet epidemic of our times.

This said, I must make one thing clear. What I’m talking about is normal, day-to-day worrying, not anything that might concern the tireless compilers of the psychiatrists’ bible, The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5 as the latest edition is known.

Of course, there must be some link between worrying and serious mental illnesses (such as acute anxiety and clinical depression). I instinctively acknowledge this but I’m a professor of English literature, not psychiatric medicine, so am ill-equipped to explain what that relationship might be.

What I do know, however, is that the vast majority of worriers remain exactly that — worried but not mentally ill. So, what do I mean by worrying? A concise definition is as elusive as any so-called cure. The right words are hard to find. But when I think of my regular nocturnal torments, I think of nagging thought-patterns that are circular, repetitive and, perhaps most importantly, painful. Worrying is not pleasant.

What is a surprise, though, is that it seems to be a comparatively new human phenomenon. Lying awake at night, fretting about this and that, I’d always consoled myself with the thought that the architects of Stonehenge probably spent similarly sleepless nights worrying whether they’d got the stones in the right place. Just as, 6,000 years later, English longbow-men lay awake brooding about the next day’s Battle of Agincourt.

But the assumption that humans have always worried may not be true. We may be imposing our modern sensibilities on past generations who certainly had serious problems but, perhaps buoyed by superstition and/or religious faith, didn’t worry about them — at least, not in the way we recognise worrying today.

Certainly, there is a conspicuous lack of historical evidence for previous generations worrying. Originally, the verb ‘to worry’ meant ‘to choke or strangle’, then ‘to distress and physically harass human beings or animals’. This definition endured right up to Victorian times. Nothing about nocturnal fretting at all.

Shakespeare, for example, while clearly familiar with all sorts of mental torment, used the word ‘worry’ just once in all his plays and poetry. That was in Richard III, when he compares the king to a hell-hound ‘that had his teeth before his eyes, to worry lambs and lap their gentle blood’. Now, that’s a characteristically vivid image but it’s not what I mean by worry.

In fact, there is a compelling argument for suggesting that modern day-to-day worrying had its origins in a 250-year period that began in the 17th century and acquired a relentless, unstoppable momentum by the end of the 19th century, the dawn of the modern age. The first trigger would have been the Period of Enlightenment, which saw a revolutionary group of philosophers arguing that the world would be a much better place if the strictures of religious dogma were replaced by the calm, rational debate of educated men (and a few women).

The bottom line for the rational philosophers was that God was no longer in charge of our individual destinies: we humans were.

Duly ‘enlightened’, fewer and fewer people, these philosophers hoped, would go to bed believing that what happened the next day, week or month was completely in God’s hands. Instead, a slowly growing number of people were increasingly aware that they would have to make a few key decisions for themselves, too. But what if we got one of those wrong? Modern worrying had begun.

The Industrial Revolution and the growing mechanisation of life certainly didn’t help. It’s no coincidence that one of the earliest modern definitions of worry appears in a dictionary published in 1860.

‘To worry’, concluded Worcester’s Dictionary Of The English Language, was to ‘indulge in idle complaining; to fret; to be troubled’. Now that’s a definition we can all recognise, I think, and the words ‘indulge’ and ‘idle’ are key.

From its earliest days, worrying has been seen as a character weakness, a frailty, a self-indulgence; something that should be avoided, controlled or cured. That explains why worrying — where the connotation with fear is never far away — was originally seen as a female complaint, a shortcoming that the Victorian male, with his fabled stiff-upper lip, could certainly never admit to.

But as a lifelong male worrier, with as many male friends who admit to similar bouts of insecurity as female, I’m convinced that men have been worrying for just as long as women. It just took them the best part of a century to admit it. As the Victorian era drew to a close, many components of our modern, fretful lives were already in place — trains, trams, telephones and an emerging middle class forever striving for a better life — and forever worrying about exactly how they were going to pay for it.

Indeed, by 1908, worrying was being described as ‘the disease of the age’, spawning the first of what would become an endless flow of self-help books offering guidance on what to do about it. Among the earliest were Worry And How To Avoid It (written by a Briton, Haydn Brown, in 1900) and the American psychiatrist William S. Sadler’s Worry And Nervousness, Or The Science Of Self-Mastery in 1914.

Both took a bracing approach typical of the time, presenting worrying as a weakness that should be overcome by strict self-control to prevent the sufferer sliding into serious mental illness.

Nowadays, of course, self-help books are much more understanding. They portray worrying as a universal problem and treat it as an obstacle to that great modern Nirvana, happiness. They offer all sorts of techniques, often derived from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy — the talking therapy that’s a standard NHS treatment for anxiety — to help their readers. If that works for you, then I’m delighted. But it seems to me that most of these books simply make the already worried more worried about their failure to control or cure their worrying.

After three decades of adult worrying, I’ve not only accepted worrying as part of my life but see it as an increasingly important and even helpful element.

For, as we get older, we should realise that we are not worrying pointlessly, as sympathetic friends have often tried to tell me. Bad things both big and small inevitably happen but, because I worry about them, I can avoid or react to at least some of them. Although my worrying at night is still painful and exhausting, I now believe it is part of my mind planning for the next day and for the future in general.

As a result, I tend to avoid the pitfalls that I worry about. So, for example, I don’t miss trains because, after a lifetime of worrying, I always try to reach the station 20 minutes early, just as I tend to be at the airport three hours ahead of take-off. It’s the same with more serious problems — though I’m always mindful that one of the early synonyms for worrying was ‘hypochondria’. Of course, mankind has had to deal with truly worrying times. With two World Wars, the 20th century was undoubtedly a ghastly period when nightmarish worries came horribly true.

Sadly, the 21st century seems little better. True, a much smaller percentage of the population has been directly affected by wars, but we all have to live with the constant and real threat of terrorism and a generally unstable world. For me at least, though, such serious matters are more the subject of daytime thought than night-time frets. My brain seems to save that time for worries that relate directly to me. Indeed, those lofty Victorians may have had a point about self-indulgence.

After years of being a worrier, I now know that to some extent I can control my worrying by distracting my mind through contemplating art and sculpture or, best of all, playing some music by Bach. Other worriers will have found other things that soothe. But we all know one thing: our worrying never goes away. You cut off one head and the Hydra grows another; strike one worry off your list and the brain simply replaces it with another.

So while I can cross worrying about writing this article off my list, and I’m in plenty of time to catch my train for France this weekend, there’s still the holiday house, the mortgage application, the threat of mosquitoes, have I packed the right plug adaptors — and will I ever be able to switch off and relax?

That’s the nature of worrying, you see. It’s simply one more thing to worry about.(Daily Mail)

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