12/27/2012 09:25 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

When Worry is a Good Thing

Worry is a relational phenomenon. If other people in a group are unwilling to share the burdens of that group, then the person who does identify problems and try to solve them has to bear the weight of those problems alone. Anxiety gets bad press but identifying problems or potential problems is part of homo sapiens' ability of being able to predict a future time and prepare for it. If we do this preparation together we share the responsibility of it which makes it bearable or even enjoyable. Useful worrying leads to best outcome planning, safety measures and sanguine acceptance about that which we cannot change. This is unlike neurotic worrying. Unhelpful anxiety is not about problem solving so much as about whirling sentences in your head around and around that start with the words: 'what if...' This is relational in a different way to useful worrying and it affects others in a different way. Somehow we can pick up, perhaps with our mirror neurons, the neurotic mood of the other and find ourselves immersed in a parallel psychological process. Unlike the sharing of useful worrying, parallel process of neurotic worrying exacerbates it into something worse. In a parallel process, worrying gets passed from person to person and even from generation to generation. Paradoxically it can be further perpetuated by our very survival which the body then unconsciously attributes to the worrying, which reinforces the behaviour of neurotic worrying. If enough parallel process is involved we can work ourselves up into mass hysteria. Then we tend to do something stupid, for example, blame the way we feel onto another group and declare war upon them.

Useful worrying does not generate mass hysteria but leads to the solving and/or accepting of problems. Useful worrying stretches us to challenge ourselves, or as psychotherapists often say, presents us with 'another opportunity for personal growth'.

High levels of stress result in panic or in the brain dissociating. Dissociation is a disconnection amongst our thoughts, sensations, feelings and actions - experienced as a type of blanking out. Therefore high levels of stress are to be avoided. And maybe they can be with a bit of strategic forward planning, such as getting up sufficiently early or asking for practical help. However, if we experience no stress at all it means that the brain does not get any exercise. A brain is not unlike a muscle, in that the cliché 'use it or lose it' applies. Moderate levels of stress keep our minds in condition, and help us to stay sane. This 'good stress' promotes the neural growth hormones that support learning. Good stress, unlike the type that causes panic or dissociation, can be experienced as pleasurable; it can motivate us or make us curious. More importantly, it triggers neural plasticity, which helps us learn, adapt, stay flexible and grow wise.

In psychotherapy, quite often, what the client and I are working towards is a position where the client is able to tolerate their feelings. We call this 'affect regulation,' a process of inhibiting anxiety and fear to allow processing to continue in the face of strong emotion. To work at this level we cannot be too comfortable, because then new learning does not take place; but nor can we be too uncomfortable, for then we would be in the zone where dissociation or panic takes over. Good work takes place on the boundary of comfort. Some psychotherapists refer to this place as 'the growing edge' or 'a good-stress zone', or talk of 'expanding the comfort zone'. The good-stress zone is where our brains are able to adapt, reconfigure and grow. Think of the brain as a muscle and think of opportunities to flex it. The more we flex it, the better our brain functions. If we think of stress as something that isn't necessarily evil and might even do us good, it puts us in a better position to worry well rather than neurotically and cope with what comes our way.

The richer and more stimulating our environment, the more problems we are likely to encounter which encourages us to learn new skills and expand our knowledge. Such learning seems to have the side-benefit of boosting our immune system. There are some animal studies that show that an intellectually stimulating environment can compensate for the damaging effects of lead-poisoning. Two groups of rats were given water contaminated with lead. One group was put in a stimulating environment and the other was not. Professor Jay Schneider, whose experiment it was, said that the magnitude of the protective effect of an educationally stimulating, social environment on the rats' ability to withstand the poison surprised him. I am sad to report the rats in the isolated, less stimulating environment did not fare so well.

If we can think of worries as stimuli for learning, growth, and socialising, we are more likely to embrace new challenges and embark on more projects for self and even world improvement. So the next time problems arise that cause us to worry, worry well by analysing the problems, breaking them down into specific, manageable bite size chunks, and chewing them over with others to come up with workable solutions and realise by worrying well in this way, you may also getting the added bonus of boosting your immune system.

Phillipa Perry is the author of the new book How To Stay Sane.