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Handling worries as "signals"

When you start worrying, the first thing to do is to distinguish whether these worries are "signals" or "noise."

Are they "signals" that you have a legitimate problem to address or that true danger, or psychological or social threat, lie ahead? Are they alerting you to take some action? If they are these kind of "signals" then you want to pay attention to them.

Or are these worries simply "noise": distractions; repetitious and unnecessary, negative thoughts that make you uncomfortable. If they are noise, then you will need some special skills to stop them from intruding. You want to get that noise out of your head, to clear your mind so that you can have more enjoyable and productive days.

Any concern that you dwell on can be a signal or noise.  You have a presentation due in three days; your son is late getting home from his date; you've been experiencing a headache for six hours; you're not sure whether you turned the iron off after leaving for work. If you have been having anxiety traveling lately and if you are considering driving to a new location in a few days, then your mind will probably begin to dwell on the upcoming trip. If these become repetitious, unproductive thoughts, they are worries. But are they a signal or noise?

Remember, worries as "signals" means there is some action we need to take; we can ignore worries that are "noise".

If they are legitimate concerns (signals), we will handle them by studying the problem and taking action. If they are a noisy racket in our head, we will handle them by various techniques that reduce their annoyance. (That's the next section.) The most direct way is to find out if a worry is a signal or noise is by attempting to make these unproductive thoughts into productive ones. In other words, treat all worries as signals until you decide that they are noise. Begin to think in a structured manner regarding your concerns.

When you hear yourself worrying, turn your attention to the details of the worries. Assume they are asking you to take some kind of action. Assume that if they are important enough to be intruding into your mental time, they are important enough to address in a structured manner. Put your worries through these four steps that lead to action.

Actively Responding to Worries as "Signals"

  1. Define your current problem, and list all the components of the problem.
  2. List all the possible solutions. What is necessary to handle each concern?
  3. Decide whether to go forward or retreat.
  4. Take action based on your possible solutions.

First, define specifically what the problem is. Sit down with paper and pencil to define the concern and its components -- everything that worries you.

For example, your definition of the problem might be, "I am not prepared for the drive on Friday." List the details under it:

  • I'm not sure of all the places to pull off.
  • I don't know where phones are along the route.
  • I don't know how far it is between those two exits on I-40, and I'm not sure I can handle more than a 2-mile span without an exit ramp.
  • What if I have a panic attack while driving?

Second, write down all possible solutions. Take the items on your list, one by one, and generate different ways to handle the concerns. These may include gathering more information, turning to experts or other knowledgeable people for advice, recalling your learnings from past successes, practicing skills. It can also include courageously taking actions even though you are uncertain of the outcome.

In this case, the items might include: taking a ride through the route as a passenger, identifying the pull-off locations, the phones, and the distance between those exits. Most importantly, it includes recalling any successes you have had in the past when responding to panic, identifying the specifics of how you would handle a panic attack in this situation, and practicing those skills ahead of time. Another obvious solution is to avoid the drive altogether.

Third, decide whether to go forward or retreat. Most worries have this option: you either pursue or you pull back. Worrying offers you a way to sit on the fence and not commit to a decision. So if you want to handle most worries, you need to force yourself to choose a direction.

  • You have a presentation due in three days: you cancel it, or prepare for it.
  • Your son is late getting home from his date: you wait for another half hour, or you start calling his most likely locations.
  • You've been experiencing a headache for six hours: you take another analgesic and wait to evaluate the problem again in the morning, or you call the doctor.
  • You're not sure whether you turned the iron off after leaving for work: you decide it is safe to wait until you get home from work, or you return home now to check.
  • You are considering driving to a new location in a few days: you go or you cancel.

You do not have to commit to the entire action from start to finish, only to walking along the path. If driving is your concern, you can decide to ride as a passenger through the route, identifying the pull-off locations, the phones, and the distance between those exits. You can then review your choices after you have experienced that step and decide whether to take another step toward your goal. You can outline the steps you want to take if you might panic while driving. You can plan to practice those skills and even list them on a cue card for the drive. You can then decide whether to take the next step of actually getting in your car and driving.

You have a right to decide to withdraw from the action. You may have to handle certain consequences of the decision -- if you cancel a luncheon date, your intended guest might be upset -- but you have the right to control your behaviors instead of being controlled by others or by some strict standard of action. You get to decide what is in your best interest at this time.

And, fourth, take action based on your possible solutions. Action gets you off the fence, where worries tend to sit. Move forward from identifying the problem, move forward from thinking about all the possible solutions. Begin to act on one or more of those plans. Again, remember that with certain projects you can commit to each stage of action without committing to the final task. Review your direction toward your goal anytime you think you have new knowledge or experience that will influence your decision.