Is Your Anxiety a Difficulty or a Problem?



In our common language often people use the terms “difficulty” and “problem” interchangeably. Although at first they may appear synonymous, these two terms have different meanings, and we must make a distinction to make more sense of our life challenges. The distinction is crucial when we want to overcome a difficulty or solve a problem.

The first people who made this distinction were the researchers at Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California. In their groundbreaking book, Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution, Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch (1974) define each term and explain why it is so important to make such a distinction.

They define a difficulty as an “undesirable state of affairs” that can be solved with common sense strategies. However, problems are deadlocks and impasses that have resisted common sense solutions, and thus need special problem-solving skills.

Let’s look at an example of a difficulty. Imagine that your boss asks you to present a work project to the rest of the team at the office. You are not too keen of speaking to a crowd but you have no choice but to stand in front of an audience of fifty co-workers and talk. You feel anxious about it and don’t know what to do.

A week before the presentation date, a friend teaches you several techniques such as deep breathing, relaxation and mindfulness meditation. You practice these techniques one hour a day for seven days. On the day of the presentation you apply your newly learned skills with great success. You manage to keep calm and deliver your speech.

Now let’s see an example of a problem. A friend of yours has been struggling with anxiety for several months. Certain places or occasions cause her much anxiety and fear. She has tried many different common sense solutions such as avoidance, relaxation, distraction, etc. They all have failed. You explain to her how you managed to beat your anxiety with mindfulness meditation and suggest her to try it. She diligently practices it for several weeks but cannot let go of her anxiety as deep breathing does little to help her.

Wasn’t mindfulness meditation effective for you? Didn’t help you overcome your anxiety? Then, what went wrong? Is something wrong with your friend? Is there some quemical imbalance in her brain?

The answer is that the common sense solutions to a difficulty do very little to solve a problem. Your anxiety was a difficulty yet the anxiety of your friend is a problem. You suffered from a temporary uneasy feeling while your friend was chronically and constantly feeling ill-at-ease.

This means that we must also make a distinction between two very different kinds of change. When we take different actions but nothing changes versus those counterintuitive strategies that solve the problem.

According to Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974): “There are two kinds of change, one that occurs within a given system which in turns remains unchanged, and one whose occurrence changes the system.”

At the first level of change, when we apply common sense solutions, the system remains unchanged even though there are changes happening within it. This is the case of your friend trying meditation.

At the second level, the counterintuitive solutions have the power to change the system itself.

Often it is not easy to know what kind of actions are needed. An easy way of getting closer to a real solution is to block your common sense solutions! For two week put aside your

Let see an illustrative example from the same book, Change. Imagine that you are having a nightmare. To end your despair and anxiety, you can take many common sense actions such as run away, hide, scream, fight, jump off a cliff, etc. However, the nightmare would not be affected because all these actions are more of the same. They may appear different but they fall into the same category. You have taken several actions that take place within the dream but none of them would terminate the nightmare. This is called first-order change.

In order to make the change at the second level, in order to change the system, you need a solution that takes you from dreaming to waking. This is called second-order change.

Ask yourself: “Is my anxiety a difficulty or a problem?” Now ask yourself what kind of solution you are applying.