Focus on real problems, not useless worries

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Worriers often worry about things that are unlikely to happen. In contrast, non-worriers focus on the problems most likely to happen. In addition, they take note of how serious the consequences might be. That allows them to take action to prevent possible issues. Do you focus on real problems, not useless worries?

Consider the following everyday examples.

Example 1:

Heart disease vs. motor neurone disease

Heart problems affect almost 50% of people in the USA. That’s one in every two people.

In contrast, motor neurone disease affects roughly 0.002% of people – about 1 in 50,000.

It follows that heart disease poses a far greater risk to health. Luckily, there are proven strategies to reduce heart disease.

However so far, no-one knows how to prevent motor neurone disease.

How would you react to this information?

Let’s look at how worriers versus non-worriers might react.

1 How non-worriers might react

Non-worriers will do what works. They won’t worry about motor neurone disease. After all, there’s absolutely nothing they can do to prevent it.

In the off-chance they do develop this condition, they’ll realise it was sheer bad luck, and work out how to manage it as needed. But it’s highly unlikely, so there’s no point stressing about it now.

Instead, they focus on what they can control to a large extent – preventing heart problems.  

2 How worriers might react

On the other hand, worriers may fixate on getting motor neurone disease. All their mental energies will be spent worrying about how terrible it would be. Or they may worry equally about both issues.

Either way, focussing on motor neurone disease could stop them acting to prevent the more likely heart disease.

Their worry could make them focus on the wrong risk.   

So be careful to focus on real problems, not useless worries.

Likelihood of risk

Unfortunately, worriers often get confused about the likelihood of bad things happening. They find it hard to tell if something bad is:

very likely

moderately likely

unlikely to happen.

To them, there’s little difference.

If they can imagine something bad happening, then they’re sure it will happen. So they worry about everything with the same intensity, regardless of the likelihood of each event happening. All their worries seem as important as each other.

As shown above, that can skew their priorities. Then they’ll worry about the wrong issue, and won’t take the actions needed to prevent the more likely problem. 

Severity of outcome

But there’s another aspect you need to take into account.

It’s also important to look at how serious the outcomes of different events might be.

Again, this is something worriers can have trouble doing.

They may treat everything as being of the same severity. They can’t judge which worries may produce better or worse results if they happen in real life. So they worry about everything, regardless how badly or well each thing may turn out. 


Perhaps the reason is that worriers tend to catastrophise.

They tend to treat all worries as having the same potential for disaster. So they expect the worst-case scenario whenever anything goes wrong. They catastrophise about everything that could possibly go wrong, even trivial problems that could be solved easily.  

But they don’t ever question this way of thinking. So they continue to focus on imagining the worst consequences that could happen if all their worries come true.

That means they have such a huge list of worries, that they don’t focus on the real problems. They don’t seem to pick out the ones that are most likely to happen, or most serious, or both. 

If this sounds like you, there are a few things you can do to reduce the amount of worrying you do.

1 Challenge your thinking

Ask yourself:

Is it true that the worst possible thing will happen every time something goes wrong? 

Have all your worries always turned out to be the worst thing that could ever have happened? What usually happens? 

What if it’s only half as bad as you expect? Is it still going to be terrible?

What if it’s only a tenth as bad as you expect? Could you manage it then?

2 Challenge yourself to think of solutions

Push yourself to think of at least three small things you could do, if something you worry about did actually happen.

See if you can work out a plan to start solving the issue. Even if it does turn out to be the worst case scenario, you’ll work out some ways to deal with it. 

Of course, life would change. And it may not be the way you want it to be. Nothing ever stays the same.

But would you be able to muddle through somehow?

What exact steps could you take to start to manage the situation? Or would you throw your hands up into the air and give up?

Probably not. Your desire to get back to an orderly existence will kick in.

So be aware when you’re catastrophising. Tell yourself it doesn’t help. Things are usually never as bad as you expect.

And even if they are, you’ll manage somehow.

Likelihood and severity

However, in real life, both factors of likelihood and severity come into play together. That is, we need to look at both how likely it is that an event will happen, as well as how bad it could be. 

Example 2:

Fixing car brakes versus new paintwork

Let’s say you have limited money to fix your car. From a safety point of view, replacing worn brakes is very important. You don’t want to have an accident.

But maybe you’re extremely conscious of your image. You worry about being judged badly for driving a beat-up old car. So you also want to fix the damaged paintwork.

How do you decide what to do?

Let’s look at likelihood first.

Which of being in an accident, or being judged badly, is more likely to happen?

Likelihood of the two events

How do you know if anyone is judging you?

In reality, most people may not even notice your car. Take note the next few times you’re out driving. Does anyone take particular, prolonged notice of your car? What percentage of people that see your car do this? Do they make rude comments or laugh at you?

Probably only a tiny number of people, out of the total number that see you, will react like this. 

So it’s unlikely that many people are judging you on the basis of your car’s appearance. Therefore, the true probability of being judged badly is probably very low.

However, the risk of an accident caused by worn brakes is high. Reports written by road safety organisations may give you the exact statistics. In any case, it’s fair to say it would be one of the leading causes of accidents on our roads.

So the likelihood of an accident is far greater than being judged negatively. So that’s the first clue that’s telling you to focus on real problems, not useless worries.

Now the second consideration comes into play. You also need to compare how bad it would be if you either have an accident, or are judged badly by a few others. 

Severity of outcome

If you have an accident, the consequences could be mild to severe in many areas of your life. Not only that, they could last indefinitely.

Think of the impact an accident could have on your employment, relationships and mobility. Your emotional, cognitive and/or physical health could be affected for years. And if you’re not insured, you could take a huge financial hit as well.

On the other hand, the embarrassment of being judged badly by someone would be short-lived. It may hurt if you choose to assume they are judging you badly. But you don’t have to make that assumption. You really have no idea if they are judging you or not.

And even if someone is judging you – too bad! They don’t know the real you. You’re more than just your car. Think of your good qualities and abilities. They don’t know any of those.

So consequences of even a minor car accident will probably be greater than being judged badly.

A clear choice

For someone who’s not a worrier, there’s no question of priorities. Safety is more important than image.

It’s more likely you’ll have an accident than be judged badly. In addition, the consequences of an accident could be far worse.

Worry distorts decision-making

But if you’re a worrier, your fear of being judged may affect your decision-making. You may focus more on your image than your safety.

So you fix the paintwork instead of the brakes. To you, the chance of being judged negatively seems worse than having an accident.

You’ve been led to focus on the wrong risk.

And yet, you have no proof of your fears of being judged badly. On the other hand, plenty of evidence shows faulty brakes lead to bad outcomes.

So it’s in your best interests to focus on real problems, not useless worries.

Two aspects of worries

So there are two aspects of worries to take note of:

1 The likelihood of them happening

2 The severity of the consequences if they do happen.

Don’t waste time worrying about things that are highly unlikely to happen. Find estimates for the likelihood of events based on research and evidence.

That will be more helpful than relying on faulty gut feelings that hint that something bad might happen.

And think more carefully about possible outcomes of events.

See if you can rank your worries on a scale. Which would turn out the worst? The best? Somewhere in the middle?

Then focus on the more serious ones that have a moderately high probability of happening. 

But don’t worry about them! As soon as you start stressing about an issue, tell yourself to make a plan. Write it down.

Start taking action, no matter how small.

Whenever you worry about this issue again, tell your mind you’ve got it covered. Then immediately switch to something more enjoyable or absorbing to do. Direct your attention to something other than your fears. Mindfulness will help in allowing worries to fall away to one side.

Train your brain to focus on real problems, not useless worries. And to solve your problems, big or small, rather than worrying about them.  

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