I am a terrible worrier. I believe that anything that can go wrong, will certainly do so at certain point. There is a special place in hell for people like me, and we live in this hell daily. Of course, I mostly manage to control the anxiety and pull myself to a condition that would allow normal existence. But it takes some talks I have with myself which call upon my reason and rationality.
If I have to play an amateur, cheap shrink to myself, I’d guess that over-worrying could stem from a fear of lack of control. Sure, you are doing your best in a situation but there are so many things out of your control that can happen and prevent you from achieving something. And I am not talking about meaningful life goals (though it applies there as well), I am talking about mundane daily activities. I am always afraid the metro/bus will be late/not show up to take me to the airport and I will miss my plane; that the car will break down as I am going to an important appointment; that I will be sick or twist my ankle as I am supposed to go and run a marathon and so on… I can talk all day about the different scenarios of everything that can go wrong in my life.
We economists like to assume people are rational agents with their own risk preferences. Someone with my extreme risk averseness would not be an interesting subject to study. However, a little anxiety and risk-averseness , I believe, can do anyone good, as long as we do not let them control us.
I remember once in high school, we were about to have a mid-term in math and many of us looked nervous in the literature class just before the test. Then the teacher asked us why we looked like a can of sardines. Her response was “Oh come on, what is one mid-term in math in the human life after all?” Though I dismissed these words as not very conciliatory at the moment, somehow they have stayed with me years later and have become something of a test. Would this issue matter 5, 10 years from now? If not, I will try my very best not to give it more attention that it deserves.
I can look back now at periods of my life when I excessively and obsessively worried about something and I only hope I have learned my lesson. I remember for a few months I was very stressed while preparing for the GRE (could be replaced with SAT, TOEFL) exam. I was not necessarily productive in my preparation but I did a very good job in worrying about it. And worrying or not, I did my best and scored alright at them all. And the funny thing is, I do not even remember what my precise scores were. I recently was filling in some application where this information was inquired. I had no idea how much I scored. But I could clearly remember those 3 miserable months of preparation and anxiety. And after all, my life did not depend on it, it was just a stupid test.
Perhaps apart from the fear of losing control over a situation, part of the anxiety is due to the fact that these things I imagine going wrong, did go wrong at certain points in my life. I did miss several buses that were about to take me half a continent (or two) away, I did lose things at the moment I needed them the most, I did get cut off, I did get rejected, I did fail when it mattered. However, none of these things piles up to anything when you truly lose something valuable, when life gets really tough and you melt to a dot of sadness. Unfortunately, really bad things will happen to all of us and to everyone we know. And until something hits us really hard, we spend energy and time worrying about small things that are out of our control. And when bad, serious things happen, they obliterate and destroy us. However, if you make it through whole, the feeling of freedom that follows is liberating; you cut loose all the small things that burdened you and learn which things are truly worth sweating over. Bottom line: don’t sweat the small stuff!