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When worrying is good for you

POSTED: November 8, 2015 11:39 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

A recent study showed that worrying holds some important emotional benefits.

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Take heart, worry warts. Being anxious while awaiting important news, such as test results or a job offer, appears to be better for mental health than playing it cool, according to a recent study, published last month in the journal Emotion (paywall).

"(Study) participants who suffered through a waiting period marked by anxiety, rumination and pessimism responded more productively to bad news and more joyfully to good news, as compared with participants who suffered little during the wait," researchers reported.

The survey focused on 230 law students who had to sweat it out for four months before receiving their results on the bar exam. Researchers studied how participants spent their time while waiting for the potentially life-changing news, concluding that it's actually better to do some serious worrying, rather than distract oneself with a hobby, The New York Times reported.

"Those who sailed through the waiting period were shattered and paralyzed by the bad news," said Dr. Kate Sweeny, the study's lead author, to the Times. "And if they got good news, they felt underwhelmed. You know, like, 'Big whoop!'"

The new research echoes other studies that have highlighted the benefits of unpleasant emotions, like stress or envy.

For example, in her book "The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It," psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues that a knot in your stomach caused by a packed schedule isn't alway a bad thing.

"When you view stress as inherently harmful, you shy away from things that are difficult and meaningful, whether that's repairing a relationship or seeking a promotion," she told CNN in July. However, studies show that people who welcome stress "are more likely to feel like they have the resources to handle it, such as self-efficacy and self-confidence."

In other words, mindset matters. If you want to "wait well" for upcoming news, don't panic if you can't stop yourself from worrying, emotion researchers noted.

"Although anxiety is a negative emotion because it feels bad, it is not a negative emotion in that it's bad to feel it. Why wouldn't you feel anxious, waiting for results?," said Dr. Julie Norem, author of "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking," to The New York Times.
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