No Hard Feelings: Worry
Worry (v., n.) anxiety arising from cares and troubles, to cause mental distress or trouble, to feel anxiety. From Old English wyrgan, ‘to strangle’, from Proto Indo-European root wer-, ‘to turn, bend’.
Famously felt by Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. “Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
Famously not felt by Icarus. “Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight, For the greatest tragedy of them all, Is never to feel the burning light.”
It’s the end of the weekend. That carefree feeling from Friday evening, when responsibilities could be tossed aside for a blissful two whole days, is slowly but surely being replaced by a creeping sense that tomorrow you’ll have to face the music. It may only be 5pm, but suddenly your mind is occupied with errant thoughts about work tomorrow: what if the train is cancelled again? Did you remember to send that email on Friday afternoon? Are you prepared for the 10am meeting? What does your boss really think of you?
All the things you put aside to deal with on Monday are suddenly looming, and then, out of nowhere, you’re no longer just thinking about work. Your mind, noticing that you are focusing on potentially stressful events that have not yet occurred, is helpfully conjuring up other similar thoughts from a wide variety of sources. It turns out, according to your brain, there is plenty to be worried about.
The Sunday Scaries, or Sunday Blues, are experienced by 80% of working professionals (that figure rises to 90% in millennials and Gen Z). It’s one manifestation of the way that humans worry about things: the future, the past, our loved ones, what people think of us, death – the list has the potential to be exhaustive.
For the most part, worrying is not a desired quality. It’s unpleasant at best, and debilitating at worst. But where do the origins of worry come from, and can it ever be a helpful emotion?
Your mind, noticing that you are focusing on potentially stressful events that have not yet occurred, is helpfully conjuring up other similar thoughts from a wide variety of sources. It turns out, according to your brain, there is plenty to be worried about.
Although now thought of as a common side effect of adult life, worrying has a violent past. From the Old English wyrgan, meaning ‘to strangle’, by around 1300 wirien meant ‘to slay, kill or injure by biting and shaking the throat’. Hence, ‘sheep worrying’ – at the core of the word, there is an association with a predator maiming, shaking or killing its prey, specifically through asphyxiation.
The intensity within the word was repurposed by literature to form an association with passionate love – as is the case with many violent metaphors that are adopted to illustrate pathos. Lovers could ‘worry’ each other with the violent passion and intensity of their feelings or kisses. The literal meaning of strangulation became obsolete by the beginning of the 17th century, replaced by the figurative definition ‘to annoy, bother, vex’, but it was not until around 1860 that the intransitive sense of ‘anxiety or mental trouble’ became associated with the word.
“Cheerfulness enables nature to recruit its strength; whereas worry and discontent debilitate it.”Samuel Smiles
Along with a modern definition for the word, the Victorians also firmly stuck the label of ‘undesirable’ on the word. In the 1870s, self-help guru for the middle classes, Samuel Smiles wrote, “Cheerfulness enables nature to recruit its strength; whereas worry and discontent debilitate it.”
The particular kind of worry that Smiles worried about was in relation to superficial or vapid problems. In a society that valued (and still values) productivity, individualism and self-improvement, bothering to waste time feeling worried about social status, romantic forays or etiquette was seen as somewhat indulgent and irresponsible. Being worried was firmly out of fashion, and in fact even prompted the invention of an entirely new medical condition to be diagnosed, treated and cured: anxiety.
It seems the world has been in agreement, since the figurative sense of ‘worry’ came about, that it is something to dispel, stop or cure. Numerous self-help books delight in the possibilities of a worry-free life: How To Stop Worrying And Start Living, The Book of Overthinking: How To Stop The Cycle of Worry, The Worry Cure. And for those who experience worry to the point of it becoming debilitating, it is certainly something to overcome.
Like a predator worrying its prey, when faced with uncertain challenges or problems, we can rattle them apart, shaking them until our thoughts are rearranged and perhaps new ideas or solutions come to light.
But increasingly, new psychological research cautions against assuming that all worry is bad. Like a predator worrying its prey, when faced with uncertain challenges or problems, we can rattle them apart, shaking them until our thoughts are rearranged and perhaps new ideas or solutions come to light. Worrying, in this moderated way, can be an imaginative process. Researchers have also found that, perhaps somewhat obviously, those who worry more have fewer accidents.
There are many things to feel worried about in life, and they are not all equal. Some are debilitating – rather than being the predator worrying a problem apart, we find ourselves in the place of the prey, feeling stifled and strangled by looming fears that just won’t stop chasing us.
But some things are worth getting into a fluster about. Discerning which are which – well, that’s something to worry about another time.