Worrying is Underrated

January 20, 2017
Eric Postal, MD

Worrying in radiology.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool worrier. Always have been. My mind simply cannot leave things alone; it insists on endlessly reviewing things past, present, and future, long after it would seem any new insights could possibly be gleaned.

This, I have been led to believe, is a Very Bad Thing. One should not worry, as it is engaging in unnecessary stress. One should relax, take things in stride. Let bygones be bygones, cross that bridge when we come to it, and as Bobby McFerrin repeatedly told us all, “Don’t worry, be happy.” A tendency to worry, it seems, is tantamount to a minor mental illness, bordering on a character flaw in the eyes of some.

It’s taken a few decades for me to finally allow myself not to worry about what such folks might think of my decision to stop fighting my worrying tendencies, and instead to embrace them.

I hasten to add that not all of what I’m considering worrying would meet other folks’ definitions of the term. The hair might be split, for instance, that it is only worrying if you are mentally wrestling with something over which you have no control, already did, and cannot undo, etc. Or if you have already rehashed something to the point that there is absolutely no way further cogitation could possibly lead to fresh insight on the matter.

That last one is probably the reason I can’t…and don’t actually want to…kick the worrying habit. I have come up with new perspectives on things years, even decades, after they occurred. Of course, it hasn’t allowed me to journey back in time and do anything about them. Nor have I routinely found myself telling, say, a former kindergarten classmate of my newfound wisdom about the time we were playing with Legos together.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"55871","attributes":{"alt":"Worry in radiology","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_1137835538905","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"7011","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 227px; width: 170px; border-width: 0px; border-style: solid; margin: 1px; float: right;","title":"©Jane0606/Shutterstock.com","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]

What I do find adaptive about my worrying is that it makes me go over everything I have done, and everything I expect to do, a gazillion times over. Each iteration slightly increases the chance I will learn a new lesson from something in my past, or diminishes the likelihood of my committing a strategic error in the future.

Even without such recognizable gains, there’s a somewhat therapeutic benefit: An embarrassing blunder in my past, endlessly replayed in my memory, loses a smidge of its sting each time, and armors me a little better against future errors. An important upcoming meeting or interview becomes a bit less imposing each time I rehearse it on my mental stage.

So, yes, I allow myself to think back on times I proclaimed subsequently diagnosed imaging abnormalities to be “no significant pathology.” Or when I mortally embarrassed myself in a Louisville hotel room as a senior resident (see? References to radiology, lest you thought I wasn’t somehow going to tie this in). And a conference call I have tomorrow morning has already played out in my noggin at least a dozen times today.

It seems, come to think of it, that I’ve grown rather relaxed about worrying.

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