The story behind your worries is deliberately design to suck you in.
Is the game Monopoly about real estate? Of course not. It’s about chance and strategy and creating chaos amid family gatherings. It’s about shoring up enough fake money to build little toy houses and hotels on a game board, forcing the other players into bankruptcy and shame. It’s about cleverness and careful investment of your fake money. It has little to nothing to do with the real-life principles, risks, or rewards of property ownership, mortgage, and housing development.
Is chess about clashing regimes? Not remotely. It’s about the strategic placement of game pieces. In the words of chess master Bobby Fischer, “All that matters on the chessboard is good moves.”
These elements of our most cherished board games are nothing more than content. Content is the story built around a well-designed game board and a pair of dice. A story that gives names to the game pieces (rook, knight, Professor Plum) and makes the game more appealing. In most cases, it’s the content (imagine: two fleets of warring battleships) that sells the product.
To focus on the content of one of these competitions as opposed to the rules and goals of the game itself would be a serious error in strategy. Imagine while playing Monopoly that you slip into some altered state of reality and begin to think, “Oh, no! I’ve landed on Park Place and it has three houses! That $1100! Where am I going to get that kind of money?!” This kind of fixation on the story of the game seems absurd. But it’s not uncommon for us to give this much time and attention to the content of our noisy worries. How? By believing that they are signals.
The idea is to avoid getting tricked into focusing on the wrong topic. So let’s put aside for right now the concern that Park Avenue is nowhere near true market value. Instead, let’s concentrate on engaging in, and eventually winning, the real challenge in front of you.
Anxiety has four ways to take advantage of your tendency to worry.
- Anxiety tricks you into thinking that every time a worry about some particular theme pops up, you should take it seriously.
- Anxiety cleverly picks a topic that has significance to you, knowing this is an effective means of hooking you, by making it relevant to your life, to your need for comfort, to your financial security, your self-esteem, or your sense of safety. So don’t be surprised if the topic of your worry is especially suited for you.
- Anxiety convinces you that you don’t have what it takes to handle this problem, and therefore it’s best that you back away and avoid attempting to solve the problem by facing it head-on.
- Anxiety trains you to use your distress as a gauge to measure impending danger. If you feel uncomfortable, it gets you to assume that your discomfort is a signal that you are not safe, that some threat is probably lurking about. It reminds you that your highest priority is the comfort of safety.
When do you lose this mental competition? When you:
- Believe that a true threat exists EVERY TIME a worry or an anxious feeling pops up.
- Believe that you should get rid of distress and worry EVERY TIME they show up.
- Believe that you don’t have what it takes to face your problems directly.
You can’t get stronger if you keep thinking and acting this way. Therefore, I propose that you adopt what you will probably consider an illogical, absurd, or absolutely improbable strategy (my favorite kind). Whatever you are afraid of, if you have decided to treat it as the noise of irrational fear, then I encourage you to step back from the details of that specific topic when they pop up. I want you to get far away from focusing on that as your primary topic.
STEP BACK. THEN CLIMB UP.
Imagine that you struggle with the possibility you might have caused an accident while driving, so you are prone to repeatedly check anytime such a worry pops into your mind. You’ve decided that such obsessions (your worries) and compulsions (your actions) are generated by OCD. Now you are driving into a parking garage, and suddenly the thought pops in your mind, Did I just hit a pedestrian? How might you apply our strategy? Your first move could be to say to yourself, “It’s fine I just had that thought.” And then focus your attention back on driving to your desired parking spot. Don’t let yourself look in your rearview mirror, and don’t loop back around “just to check once, for safety’s sake.” Tolerate the doubt and distress you are now feeling.
ABSURD, right? You have some powerful sense that you might’ve hurt someone, and I’m suggesting that you don’t act on the worry? Who is this guy?
Now you’ll be stuck feeling anxious, and a part of you continues to think, What am I doing? I’ve got to go back! I can’t stand this feeling! It will take me only two minutes to loop back around. That’s no time at all. What kind of fool would I be not to take those few minutes to double back, just to be sure?
You hear that voice inside you, and you feel all that tension and anxiety, but you nod your head and keep driving forward. What a bizarre way to respond to your fear that you’ve hit a person with a 1.5-ton vehicle! But if you have OCD, that’s what you need to do: take actions as though the content of your worry is irrelevant (which means to keep driving). Expect that your worry will continue to show up, trying to capture your attention. Expect that you will continue to be anxious. Allow your worry and permit yourself to feel anxious—just don’t let them run the show. That’s the work you must do. That’s how you will win this competition.
Further reading: Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016