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  • Writer's pictureJessica Lankmann, RP

Worry Vs Noise: Sorting Your Thoughts

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

In my previous blog post The Many Sides of Anxiety, I went over a variety of different strategies that I have found extremely beneficial when working with individuals with anxiety.

Despite a lot of people feeling like they have little control over their anxious thoughts, it has been my experience that people have a lot more control over their thinking patterns than they give themselves credit for. When given the right skills, support, and guidance, it’s amazing how quickly someone can gain control over their thinking patterns. I know this is possible, because I have seen this happen time and time again in the work I do!!

Before we can change our thought patterns, it’s first imperative to start by distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful thoughts:

Helpful thoughts are those that are adaptive and help us solve problems, whereas unhelpful thoughts are those that tend to cause more harm than good and have a tendency to increase anxiety.

Worry = Helpful

Noise = Unhelpful

All this talk about unhelpful versus helpful thought patterns can get confusing. It can be hard, especially if you have never been taught to objectively evaluate your thoughts in order to determine which ones are helpful and which ones are not. Part of my job, as a psychotherapist, is to help clients become more aware of their thinking. Once we’ve done that I teach them strategies to challenge these thought patterns so they can develop more balanced ways of thinking.

One of the things that I have done that has been helpful is to start using the terms worry and noise. Worry is what I consider helpful thoughts and noise is what I consider unhelpful thoughts. Although I wish I could take credit for coining the term “noise”, I must give credit where it is rightly due. Reid Wilson (Ph.D.) uses the term noise in his book “Stopping the Noise in your Head: The new way to overcome anxiety & worry” (I regularly recommend this book to my clients with anxiety as it is very informative).

Worry = Action-oriented, beneficial, and adaptive thoughts

Noise = Confusing, conflicting, and distressing thoughts

To help the people distinguish between worry and noise, I always provide the gas light example.

Worry are the thoughts that kick in when you are driving and your gas light comes on. They guide you and make sure that you stop at the gas station instead of continuing on and running out of gas. They are the thoughts that are activated and remind you that you have 50 kilometres once the light turns on. They remind you of the sign that you saw a couple kilometres back on the 401 that a gas station was coming up in 16 kilometres. They prompt you to search your car for your wallet to make sure your bank card is there.

Noise, on the other hand, are the thoughts that spring into action once you fill up your gas tank and are in the process of trying to figure out where you will be the next time your gas light comes on and whether you will be within a close enough range to a gas station to fill your tank up. What happens if this is the one time you leave your wallet at home? What happens if you are on a country road in the middle of nowhere and there is no gas station in sight? What happens if you get lost while looking for a gas station?

Worry = Actionable and helpful in solving problems. IN your control.

Noise = Mental clutter. OUT of your control.

Sometimes, as in the example listed above, our thoughts in a given situation clearly belong to one category versus the other. However, more often than not, situations are not that clear cut and they tend to contain a mixture of both worry-based and noise-based thoughts, which adds a level of complexity. BUT, just because something may be a little more complex, does not mean it is not workable. In these situations, my recommendation is to follow the 4 steps listed below.

Worry Vs Noise

Step 1: Start by listing all the thoughts that come to mind. Step 2: Go over that list with a fine tooth comb and cross out any thoughts that are noise. NOTE: Noise is out of your control. There is nothing you can do about it. Worry is within your control and you can do something about it. Step 3: The remaining thoughts are the ones that you can work with. Create a plan to address each of the remaining thoughts. This should help decrease your anxiety! Step 4: If you can’t come up with a plan to address a thought in step 3, cross it off the list, it is noise.

Example: You have been invited to a social gathering thrown by a group of your old high school friends. It’s been a long time since high school. The thought of getting together with your old friends has been making you feel very overwhelmed and anxious.

Step 1: List of Thoughts

I won’t know what to say

This is going to be very awkward

I don’t know what to wear

They will think that I am boring

They have all achieved so much since high school and I have achieved nothing

I suck in social situations

They will judge me

I’ll be shaky and sweaty

I’ll be anxious

Step 2: Cross out the noise

I won’t know what to say

This is going to be very awkward

I don’t know what to wear

They will think that I am boring

They have all achieved so much since high school and I have achieved nothing

I suck in social situations

They will judge me

I’ll be shaky and sweaty

I’ll be anxious

Step 3: Plan

  • I won’t know what to say: Come up with a list of topics in advance that you can discuss with your group of high school friends. For example, hobbies, pastimes, what you do for fun, funny moments, trips or vacations you have taken, etc…

  • They have all achieved so much since high school and I have achieved nothing: Spend some time reflecting on what you have personally achieved and done since high school. Create a list of achievements, life milestones, and accomplishments no matter how small or irrelevant they may seem to you.

  • I don’t know what to wear: Reach out to one of the friends attending the gathering and inquire about the dress code. You could also pick an outfit that is versatile and can be dressed up or down depending on the situation.

  • I’ll be anxious: You have a bunch of strategies in your toolbox that you have found helpful in decreasing your anxiety in the past. Keep them at the forefront of your mind. If you need to walk away for a minute to do some deep breathing or grounding exercise that is perfectly fine. Make a list of the strategies that have helped in the past.

Worry versus noise is one of the many strategies that I use with clients to help them categorize their thinking patterns in a way that makes sense. Once you can step back and look at your thoughts objectively you can start to see which ones are helpful and which ones are not.

On paper, this looks pretty straightforward, but it has been my experience that it’s not always that easy. We have an emotional connection to our thoughts. Because of this link it can be very hard to take that step back and look at our thoughts from a non-emotional standpoint. That is why connecting with a professional can be so helpful as they can help guide and support you so you don’t have to tackle this on your own.

This more neutral perspective can be a game changer!

Call our clinic today at 613-877-4148 to connect with a trained professional, like myself, who can help you navigate the healing and recovery process.

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