How much worrying is productive?

This Sunday I dropped by Whole Foods to pick up my favourite hazelnut milk after a light workout session at my local gym. As I strolled through the aisles a couple caught my eye. Each was pushing a huge shopping cart filled to the rim with non-perishables, such as canned soups, cereal, rice, and dried lentils.

What were they buying all this food for? Was it for a local charity? Surely not at pricey ‘Whole Pay check’! Turns out the couple was stacking up their own food pantry as news broke about an increase in Coronavirus cases by 50 percent in the UK. The fear of the virus is based on a dire reality of a global health crisis. Yet, there is still a lot of ambiguity as to what this will ultimately mean to most of us. And the mounting anxiety around this uncertainty feels exhausting. How can we remain calm and confident amid so much perceived danger?

Fear is fundamentally human. Our individual fear response is likely to some degree due to genetic predisposition (hello nature!) as well as the result of how we are raised (hello nurture!) and life circumstances. It serves a signalling purpose in the face of immediate danger (real or perceived), a useful mechanism that will initiate important biological responses such as the release of adrenaline to run away from a lion or to muster strength to fight a colleague who is playing politics. Fear sharpens the senses and prepares us for flight or fight reactions. Anxiety, however, given it is based on uncertainty, paralyses the senses, inhibits action, and leaves us often oblivious as to how to diminish our discomfort. So in other words, fear is good, anxiety not so much?

Well, not so fast you might say. Anxiety can be a source of survival. Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove definitely bought into this idea as he coined the phrase “only the paranoid survive” over the course of his successful leadership of the chip giant. Leaders who envision a future that inspires followership can leverage anxiety in parts to remain vigilant and to prepare for possible dangers and roadblocks. What is more, anxiety can make us feel alive, as we face a world of possibility, and according to famous Existentialist Soren Kierkegard, “the greater the anxiety, the greater the man”. Stephen Colbert, likely one of the most gifted performers of our time, has openly admitted his anxiety and that “creating something is what helped from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel.”

But anxieties that lead to chronic overthinking and worry, that stifle our ability to function, to take risks and thrive, are another matter. Not surprisingly, there is a close link between anxiety and depression and 60 percent of those with excessive worry develop depression at some point or another. Depression often leads to loss of energy as well as low levels of engagement and self-esteem.

As a first step towards building resilience and coping with modern life, we can learn to separate fear from anxiety: what are the facts, what is the fiction? And as we look at what is fiction, how much of our worry is productive?

So, should you be worried about your level of worrying? Here is a questionnaire to get you started: Worry and Anxiety Questionnaire (WAQ)