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Are You Agitating or Thinking?

Do you obsess, stuck in mental wheel-spinning, when you need to make a decision?

Thinking leads to solutions. Agitating builds anxiety.

Thinking leads to solutions. Agitating builds anxiety.

Have you been thinking about how you'd like to handle, or wish you had handled, a challenging situation in your life like a communication problem in your relationship or a difficult dilemma at work? Thinking is forward-moving. Obsessing, by contrast, just agitates back and forth, back and forth.

Some people think through problems in a way that leads to creative solutions. They then experience the calming relief that comes with having resolved a serious problem. Others just get increasingly agitated and anxious. What accounts for the difference? The key may lie in one little three-letter word.

What word can cause your mind to agitate like a washing machine? See if you can spot it in the following line of self-talk.

"I'd like to go to the mountains this weekend."

"But there's no way I can do that with my house needing to get cleaned up."

"Maybe I can clean it up after work on Monday."

"But I know I'll be too tired to tackle it then."

"But it looks like such beautiful weather and it's been so long since I've gone hiking."

Could you tell what three-letter word was the culprit in this frustratingly agitating inner dialogue? If you guessed that the word that was so demoralizing was but, you guessed right.

But deletes whatever came before. Like the agitator cycle in your washing machine, each time your thoughts move forward, but shifts them back to where you started.

The good news

Notice what happens if you shift from using but, which is like a subtraction sign, to using and, which adds each new piece of information to your data base.

"I'd like to go to the mountains this weekend."

"And at the same time there's no way I can do that with my apartment needing to get cleaned."

"Maybe I can clean it up after work on Monday."

"And yet I know I'll be too tired to tackle it then."

"And at the same time it looks like such beautiful weather. I'd love to go hiking."

"I know! I'll just skip picking up the apartment this weekend and live with the mess for a week unless I have a surprise burst of energy one evening after work. Then next weekend I'll do a thorough cleaning. Maybe I'll even ask a friend to come over. We could clean my house together, and then switch to his."

What was the outcome of using and, or better yet and at the same time?

The thinking pattern was forward-moving. Each additional piece of information propelled the thinking forward toward a creative solution.

Replacing but with and or with and at the same time can have a similarly postive impact on decision-making dialogues in your important relationships. That is, whether the thinking is just within your own thoughts, or in talking with another person, the linking word determines whether you will end up feeling inccreasingly agitated or gradually calmer.

Anxiety builds when solution-building on problems ahead swirls in circles or feels stuck.

By contrast, once someone clicks into problem-solving thinking mode, linking their thoughts with and rather than but, a plan of action is likely to emerge. With a plan, anxiety is likely to dissipate. Try it....


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications and The Power of Two: secrets to a strong and loving marriage. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a website that teaches the skills for marriage success,