What, me worry?" said Alfred E Neuman famously in the illustrated border of the first magazine version of Mad in July 1955 and made the phrase synonymous with unquestioning vapidity. Mad magazine got it right. The uncurious utterance has more to do with stupidity than most of us have been brought up to believe. Some amount of worry is a sign of intelligence and makes it easier for you to negotiate through life.
New research shows that worrying evolved along with intelligence as a beneficial trait that helped early humans plan ahead and avoid dangerous situations.
Scientists in the US have found that high intelligence and worry both correlate with similar brain activity measured by the depletion of the nutrient choline in the subcortical white matter of the brain, reported Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience. Previous studies have shown that people with high IQ and those with low IQ tend to worry far more than people of moderate intelligence. While brainiacs tend to worry simply because they are smart enough to anticipate real and imagined pitfalls, those with sub-normal intelligence are more anxious because they are less successful in life.
Walking the tightrope between morphing into a hair-clenching worrywart and a stupidly oblivious Neuman is not easy. If you have a brain, you will worry. The challenge is to stop worry from dominating your thoughts and actions.
For worrying does unspeakable things to your immune system and increases risk of almost all infections and diseases. From headaches and colds to the more debilitating diabetes, heart attacks, depression and impotence, stress has been linked to almost everything that can mess up your life.
Relationships, jobs, illness, political apathy… everything can cause worry, which then spills over to everything you do. And the stress stops you from turning off, particularly when you have little control over the situation. A 2010 survey of people working with multinationals, call-centres and the public sector in Delhi found 9% professionals highly stressed and 52% moderately stressed, with only 39% reporting mild stress. None, however, identified work they did as the stressor, but blamed their problems on people.
An established way to air your brain is by using the relaxation response technique, developed by cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s. To counter the stress response, he proposes achieving a state of profound rest through progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and yoga, all of which slows heartbeat and respiration, forcing the body's oxygen consumption to drop along with levels of blood lactate - lactic acid that appears in the blood when oxygen delivery to the tissues is not enough to support normal metabolism - that is linked to panic attacks.
Last year, a University of Chicago study showed that even a 10-minute meditation session improved the averages of people taking a high-stake math exam by freeing their brains of worry and helping then focus on the maths.
Contrary to perception, alcohol and smoking add to stress. Alcohol makes your mind feel relaxed but muddles your biological response: blood alcohol levels over 0.1% (one large whisky or one glass of wine) makes your stress hormones work overtime, making you feel tired and listless over time. Smoking does little more than to give you an excuse to physically remove yourself from a stressful situation by leaving the room, home or office. Over time, nicotine-dependence creates stressful craving adds to worry.
For those contemptuous of therapeutic meditation - I find it impossible to sit still at a stretch - a good way to unclutter the mind is to do things you like best: listen to music, surf the net, hang out with family and friends, watch your favourite sitcoms or sport. It works each time, unless your favourite player is playing worse than your one-legged geriatric neighbour.