Anxiety and risk, the wet floor sign dilemma

wet floor sign as a metaphor for anxiety response

Have you ever tripped over a wet floor sign? I know I have. I guess I need to pay more attention to where I am going. I do think I have tripped over more wet floor signs than I have ever slipped on wet floors.

Really, there ought to be a sign – to warn you about the sign. A ‘caution wet floor sign’ sign!

Now there’s an idea for a new product.

Life is full of risks. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) say that each year there are around 1,300 significant injuries caused by slips and trips in the food and drink industry. 80% of these involve spillages. So the wet floor sign is an important measure, but like every risk, when we adjust for one risk, we create another. That is why shops don’t display ‘caution, wet floor sign’ signs. It is also why they don’t close every time somebody spills something and wait for it to dry.

When you have a bad experience – a bad interview, a bee-sting, an argument with a loved one – your unconscious mind puts out it’s own ‘caution wet floor’ sign. It has to, that’s its job. Hopefully the sign protects you against similar experiences. You get a little nervous when you face that issue again so you are sensibly cautious.

But some experiences are unavoidable and some experiences may be things that, although stressful, are also desirable. You hate interviews, but you want the job. You don’t like being stung but want to make your own honey. You don’t want a row, and you do need to talk things over occasionally.T

his is where sometimes you unconscious mind can be less helpful. If something repeatedly goes wrong, it might just put up a bigger sign. One so big it just stops you going near the problem ever again, because all you can see is the sign! This is where it can help to focus beyond the bad thing, to the goal beyond it.

When all you want is a bottle of fizzy from the drinks cabinet, you know to avoid the sign. You pick out the drink you want, you notice where the spillage is,and then carefully grab the drink. If the puddle is a massive leak and you are wearing Ugg boots, you choose to skip the drink and get one somewhere else. You know you are not going to drown, but they were expensive boots and you think they make you look good.

When dealing with any kind of anxiety, just like when confronted with a wet floor sign, what you want to achieve, is:

  • an acknowledgement that there is a risk
  • a sensible assessment of the significance of the risk
  • an appropriate response
  • not to trip over the sign!

You can read more about anxiety and fear and how to handle them in my article ‘Why do we need to be afraid?’

Robert Sanders is a therapist and life coach, supporting people in their present and helping them create their future.

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