The Hard Facts: Don’t Worry

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Most people worry from time to time. A new research study…shows that worrying can be so intrusive and obsessive that it interferes in the person’s life and endangers the health of social relationships.” (“Worrying Can Impact Interpersonal Relationships, Study Finds,” Science Daily 7/26/2011)

I can attest to this firsthand. I have a friend who once seemed to enjoy worrying. She was one of those people who, if she didn’t have something to fret over, felt she wasn’t being productive. (Despite people saying they just want to live stress-free, I’ve found that plenty actually find relaxation boring. If they aren’t worrying, they feel unproductive. I am no such gal.)

This friend’s inability to calm down would have been fine–not my problem, right?–except it wasn’t fine at all. It was my problem.  Her stress was contagious. Whenever we hung out, her anxiety rubbed off on me. In a matter of minutes I’d go from totally zen to teetering on the edge.

(And these weren’t legit, big time worries. I’m talking every day stress. We’ve all been there.)

There’s plenty of research to support the idea that we adopt the emotions of those around us. And while there seem to be defense mechanisms (“those who are [emotionally spongy] can learn to protect themselves from inadvertently taking in other people’s stress,” writes Martha Beck in O Magazine) learning them takes work, and practice. All the stuff we don’t necessarily want to focus on when we’re off the clock.

Instead of doing the work, people often choose to cut ties. My friend and I grew apart a bit in the wake of her non-stop worrying. We never spoke of her stressful demeanor, and how susceptible I was to it, and I’m sure she attributed our fade-out to something entirely different. Now that we live in separate cities all is well, but her worries most definitely endangered our social relationship.

Stress contagion isn’t the only way worrying can threaten a relationship. The act of worrying itself manifests in different ways. Your worrywart friend might express her concern by calling every five minutes on the night you offer to babysit. Another anxious bestie might talk about the stress that plagues her nonstop, bring a real Debbie Downer vibe to your girl-dates. Either way: endangering the relationship. Big time.

My worrying friend has calmed down in her old age. And I’ve loosened up a bit, too. I try not to get so affected by other people’s moods. The key word being “try.” I’m a work in progress.

I can’t say I was surprised to read today’s research. Friends should help you forget your worries, not trigger them. Who needs it?

Have you ever experienced this stress contagion? Has a friend’s worrying tendencies ever endangered your relationship? Have you ever been the worrying culprit?


Filed under The Search

6 responses to “The Hard Facts: Don’t Worry

  1. I am a worry-er. It’s just in my nature. I like to think that I have gotten better, but sometimes I think that I have gone in the opposite direction to help make other people feel better. Regardless, I would feel pretty awful if I found out someone didn’t want to be friends with me because I worry so much. So, hopefully, I find a good balance soon and this isn’t something that will ruin a friendship for me.
    That being said, I am an emotional sponge and I do find that when I am around more zen friends, I can calm down even more – so maybe I just need to surround myself with those people more 🙂

  2. TC

    To say that I’m a worrier is an understatement. I worry about my decisions, my friend’s decisions, etc. I actually had one friend “dump” me because my worries manifested into negative traits and she found that it left her utterly drained. We’re friends again now (not as close as we once were but relatively close) and I’ll never forget the “dumping.” Now, I journal a lot more or keep to myself when I find that my worrying has me in a funk. Oddly enough, when surrounded by people who are positive, I am more committed to my funk! It’s as if I’m repelling their positivity.

    It’s a bit difficult to find the right balance of being the fun, sassy, cheerful but at the same time serious, sometimes moody, thought-contemplating friend that I am. I think most people struggle with that balance too. However, if you surround yourself with understanding friends, then perhaps the friendship will not falter?

    • Suzannah

      I think if you have a geninue friendship, then you also have the freedom to be yourself on any given day. Unfortunately those friendships are the most difficult to find, but not impossible!

  3. Ana

    Also guilty! Bigtime worrywart here! Can’t really stop the worries from entering my head, but have noticed that I can prevent them from overtaking my life by reframing my thoughts & rationalizing them away. I’ve also been on the receiving end—and realize how incredibly painful it is, as an emotional sponge, to have to be around such constant negativity & stress. Because of this, I have become very conscious about not overwhelming my friends & loved ones with my irrational or overblown worries; I can talk to a good friend or my husband about something bothering me, and get advice and a sounding board, but after that, if I refuse to do anything about it or stop worrying about it, it is MY problem, not their’s, and I should keep it that way!

  4. Darlene

    I am a worrier by nature — always have been, even was as a little kid, I’m told. It’s tough, because among your best friends, you think that you should be able to share your worries. But I’m always conscious of trying not to come off too negatively, so I end up faking a carefree and fun attitude. And that feels bad because, shouldn’t you be able to be who you are in front of your closest friends, and not have to fake something you don’t feel?

    Potential friends are different, granted — people you don’t know well don’t need to hear about your life stresses and I do try really, really hard to be positive around people with whom I am not close yet.

  5. Mia

    I also think it’s important to clarify the difference between worrying about things one can control vs. those one cannot. That being said, generally, worrying is in regards to negative situations, which is not to say that friends shouldn’t support you through tough times. It’s just the constant vacillating between options, details, outcomes, etc. is draining, because until the decision is made, none of it is even real.

    As one with a family history of “worrywartitis”, I’m almost at the complete other spectrum. On non-major issues, worrying only creates added stress, but does not eliminate the action you must to do to alleviate/address the problem, i.e. makes your life more difficult. Also, it seems like there is a strong correlation between “worrying” and caring what others think — not only does one worry about the impact/effect of the decision, one also is concerned with others’ perception of said decision, leading to a secondary level of new worries.

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