My Worry: Is It a Signal or Noise?

Written by Reid Wilson, PhD


Differentiating between helpful and unhelpful worries

Photo by Ali Pazani on Unsplash

You’re 19 years old, wrapping up your sophomore year of college. That term paper you’re writing, the one that must be hand-delivered to your professor’s mailbox by end of day, is about a dozen pages short. So far you’ve got today’s date at the top and a title you’re unhappy with. And the reason you’re stalling and surfing Facebook is that you didn’t read two of the three texts required to actually write this term paper. And you skimmed the third.

I think we can all agree that this is a legitimate worry, so we’re going to call this type of worry a signal.


“I have a final paper due before dinner on two texts I haven’t read… 

and I haven’t started!”

Why a “signal?” Because the knocking knees, the knot in your throat, cold sweats, affected breathing—all the physical manifestations of your worry—are prompting you to put out effort. Your body is signaling you to take action. Move it! DO something! You must own up to the difficult situation you’ve put yourself in, acknowledge the worry, and develop a plan of attack. 


Accept the mediocre title, get off Facebook, and start writing. Call a classmate who’s read the assigned texts and invite her over for breakfast. Call your professor (commence sobbing) and beg for an extension. Or call your professor (still sobbing) and invent a semi-plausible story about a computer virus… or an unpleasant breakup… or a dormitory fire that destroyed the hard drive on which your paper was saved—and thank God you weren’t in the building at the time!

Whatever you choose, the signal is still TAKE ACTION. Move, work, write, create, call, plead, invent, or lie—really anything except stay still, sulk, stare, stall, succumb. Anything worth worrying about is worth problem solving. Either the worry pops up and it’s a signal that we have some problem solving to do… or it’s just plain old noise.

“Noise” is what its name suggests. Buzzing. Nuisance. Interference. It’s irrelevant. It’s repetitive. It’s downright irritating at times. It’s not productive or useful or worth listening to. Noise is static.


You have OCD, and unnecessary “checking” is your thing.

As you pull into your office parking lot, you think to yourself,

“Did I lock the front door when I left home this morning?”

Here’s a more in-depth example of noise:

You, overachieving 19-year-old sophomore, completed your term paper days in advance of the due date. To say you were comfortable with the assigned texts would be an understatement; you could probably recite them from memory. Rather than handing in the paper early, you used that spare time to review your essay response, making minor changes and correcting some overlooked grammatical errors. You deliver the final draft hours before the deadline and email your professor a copy as well.

You awaken at 3AM, panicking. “Wait—what if I totally missed the point of the assignment? What if I misread the prompt or forgot to include a bibliography? What if I get a D on this paper?! That would really bring down my final grade and my GPA. My parents would be really disappointed.”

What tells us that this is noise as opposed to a signal? First, it’s 3AM. You (like most of us) have declared 3AM as sleep time. Pursuing the worry now brings you no benefits, even if it is a valid concern. 

Second, you are not the procrastinating, underprepared college freshman. You are the bright, diligent student who is mindful of the deadline and goes above and beyond as opposed to doing just enough. There’s nothing tangible to substantiate your worry, nothing to legitimize the fear that you’ve “blown it.” Earning a D is not impossible, sure, but it’s unlikely. 

Mark this one as “noise” and go back to bed.

– – –

Either a worry represents a valid concern and therefore becomes the first step in your problem-solving process, or that worry is irrelevant, distress-provoking noise that you should not address. So when a worried thought pops up, take a step back and disengage from your upset about the specifics. Examine the worry, and then decide if it’s a signal or if it’s noise. If you conclude that it’s a signal, that’s wonderful! You can do something about a signal. Signals come with solutions. Signals we can handle.

On the other hand, if that worry sounds like noise, you can’t solve it. No solution exists. The paper’s been handed in (twice!). Getting out of bed at 3AM and stressing over it is caving in to the noise. Your easy-listening station is picking up static, and you’re turning up the volume, trying to decipher the lyrics to a song you can barely make out beneath all the noise. It’s time to change the station.

Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016. 

About the Author

Dr. Reid Wilson

REID WILSON, Ph.D. has spent his entire 30-year career in the field of self-help for
anxiety disorders and OCD. He is Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center and is an international expert in the treatment of anxiety disorders, with books translated into nine languages. In 2014 he was honored with the highest award given by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and he was presented the 2019 Service Award by the International OCD Foundation. 

To learn more about Dr. Wilson, click here.

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