Using Worry the Right Way

Where does worry come from?

Here's a rather simplistic view of our brains. It is not a complete picture, but it provides a basic model that shines a bit of light on our human thought processes.

The Three Parts of the Brain

Our most basic brain system is often referred to as the Reptilian Brain. This is the seat of instinct. Responses here will often trigger the emotions that are governed by our somewhat higher brain system, the Limbic Brain. On top of that, and some may say fighting the lower two brain systems, we have the Neocortex. This is the rational brain that tries to make sense of the disparate signals bubbling up from the lower two brain systems.

If you follow the chain of command, then we have: instinct to emotion to rationality. In the metaphor of the elephant and the rider (as discussed in Chip and Dan Heath's book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard), instinct and emotion are the elephant that the tiny rational rider desperately struggles to control. He doesn't always win.

So Where Does Worry Come From?

Evolution programmed our Reptilian Brain to detect and avoid danger... to be on the lookout for those beasts that would hunt us.

This vigilance triggers our Limbic Brain to begin worrying, and primes the body's physiological systems to be on the ready to react.

And finally, the tiny Neocortex rider attempts to put this all into a real-life context. But it doesn't always get it right. It will create symbolic representations of danger, many that aren't necessarily present or avoidable. But it does it just the same to satisfy the drives coming from the Limbic and Reptilian Brains.

If there isn't anything really to fear, all of this priming can leave your body tense and fraught without any physical activity to release it. This brings us to a reason that Bad News sells newspapers, TV shows and supermarket tabloids...

In the Neocortex's grab for context, it will latch onto Bad News. In the absence of real life-threatening FEAR in our own lives, we search it out in the lives of others. We find something to worry about.

Using Worry As A Strength

Think about this if you feel worry is a problem in your life. Knowing the Reptilian-Limbic-Neocortex chain of command, your own rider can acknowledge what's happening, and maybe move the elephant down a different path.

In the very least, you should know that in the 1983 research paper Preliminary exploration of worry: some characteristics and processes the authors concluded that "worriers appeared to be very poor at generating successful solutions or effective coping responses, but very good at defining problems."

If worry is a source of trouble for you, become a strong problem definer. If you know someone on your work-team that seems to be a worry-wart, turn to them in your brainstorming sessions when tackling problems and let them help you define the situation.

If you've got any examples to illustrate this further, please post them in the comments below.

By Kevin Rokosh

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