Legitimate worries are a stimulus to act.
Hurricane preparedness was on the minds of Texans, Floridians, and folks in the Caribbean this past August as hurricanes Harvey and Irma gained momentum in the Atlantic Ocean. Each summer, South Florida residents, now accustomed to these storms, are bombarded with reminders on local news programs about purchasing supplies in advance. At the end of each evening broadcast, meteorologists urge homeowners to “Get prepared!”
But Frank, our fictional South Florida resident, hasn’t purchased any nonperishables. He hasn’t bought batteries or flashlights or a first aid kit. He hasn’t put up shutters. However, Frank is stocked up on worries.
This week, he worried a heck of a lot about that old tree out back, the one that in 125 mph winds could easily be uprooted and come crashing down on his screened-in patio…but, no, he hasn’t actually done anything about it. His legitimate worries never triggered action, never provoked him to purchase supplies, never prompted him to pull his chainsaw out of the shed and chop down that looming liability.
Through all his worrying, Frank has anticipated most of the negative events that might occur. He does this because he believes that when he worries, he is readying himself for any calamity that might befall him. His pattern reflects this false belief: “If I worry about it, then when something bad happens, I’ll be better prepared for it.” Or: “Worrying means I’m more likely to figure out how to prevent something bad from happening.”
What Frank hasn’t done, despite all of his worries, is take action to prevent those negative outcomes. Frank has missed a pivotal step in the problem-solving cycle.
The Problem Identification Phase
A struggling small business owner is facing some difficult decisions. With a swelling debt and no promising leads, she’s thinking that she might need to lay off some of her employees. Even more troubling, she doesn’t know how long she can maintain her business. Her worries—about the livelihoods of the people who work for her, about her own livelihood, about impending bankruptcy—have forged together to form a big ugly ball of anxiety that hounds her day in and day out.
None of us believe that worrying brings instant gratification or pays off our credit card debt. “This is unpleasant,” we tell ourselves, “but at least I’m worrying. That’s a step in the right direction.” Worrying about all of these potential negative outcomes seems a heck of a lot better than losing everything / going to pieces / having a heart attack / disappointing everyone / humiliating myself. We have no need to adjust our intentions (which are good) or the logic behind them (which is sound). Instead, we must figure out new ways to respond to our distress signal. We need an alternative approach.
When we’re stuck acknowledging our challenges but take no action to tackle or resolve them, we’re trapped in the “problem identification” phase. It’s not uncommon that we get caught here, staring at our problems like we’re staring at a blank page, asking ourselves, “Well, now what?”
Worrying helps us identify our challenges. But when we don’t do anything about them, worry takes on a new form. It sends us constant reminders, nagging us, stressing the importance of each of our challenges, and painting a bleak picture of our present situation.
The Problem-Solving Phase
So how do we get out of the “problem identification” phase? Well, our worries are designed to motivate us, to drive us toward creating a problem-solving plan and then acting on it, one step at a time. Our small business owner needs to call her financial advisor or call her father-in-law in Toledo to ask him for a loan, or seek new job procurement services at a free business seminar. Our fictional Florida resident Frank needs to go to the supermarket, snag some last-minute supplies, and decide if he’s going to ride out the storm or evacuate. Even setting aside a specific time on a specific date to sit down and address the issue is a better option than allowing worry to gnaw, gnaw, gnaw away at us.
That doesn’t mean our worries will just disappear. We can still feel anxious even while taking action to solve our problems. Our small business owner can set a date and time to meet with her CPA, but that won’t stop worry from creeping in. Frank can borrow shutters from a kindly neighbor; it doesn’t mean he won’t fret about the potential damage to his home.
This is our goal when we receive a worry signal: We create a plan and then act on that plan. Let worry provoke you into taking action to address the problem. That means:
- You have to have a plan you are willing to act on.
- You need worry to trigger you to act.
Worry plays a legitimate role in motivating us to take action on our plans, to stay on task, and to solve problems both big and small in our lives. It has the potential to trigger planning, preparation, and action—but worrying in itself is not acting. Acting is making a plan, checking inventory, purchasing supplies, and putting up shutters.
Acting is moving. Worrying is sitting still.
When faced with a challenge—be it a hurricane or a struggling business—we must decide to act and then we must act. Otherwise, we’ll be in the aftermath of the storm, staring at that old tree that’s collapsed onto our patio and asking, “Well, what now?”
Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.