“We are distressed about the past, perturbed about the present, and frightened about the future,” observed a Jewish poet, Jedayah Bedersi “Ha-penini,” in Provence, in the early fourteenth century, meditating on human nature.1 He evidently noticed the human tendency to worry. But what is worry? Why do we worry? How do we worry? These are the questions we will try to answer in this chapter.
Is worry a feeling, an unpleasant emotion, or a disturbing thought? Is it a vague fear or a specific apprehension? It can come in varying intensities, ranging from a mild bother to extreme distress. We may think of it as a state of the heart, the mind, or the soul.
Worry is perhaps also a natural inclination and, in some people, a personality trait. Sometimes it is a life-preserving impulse; often it is a learned response to bitter experience.
The seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza thought that worry is an “inconstant pain” arising from the image or idea that something bad might happen.2 Worry is essentially future-oriented, as we think about an unpleasant possibility. When we worry about the past or the present, we worry about something that is somehow related to or could affect our future.