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Are Your Problems Saving Your Sanity? Counter-Irritant Theory and Anxiety

Updated on October 4, 2014

Have you ever heard of counter-irritant theory?1 It is a medical theory, according to which the application of a substance or product liable to inflame and irritate the immediate tissues, may thereby effect healing of a pathological condition elsewhere in the body. I’m not sure how much esteem this theory is now held in (if it ever was), but it’s something I like to apply to my regular everyday life, rather than to my health. I think unconsciously I always have, and only recognised it for what it was when I saw the theory briefly described in a vintage medical romance novel I was, um, skim-reading to give a review for a friend (cough).

Too Many Problems?

Public domain.
Public domain. | Source

What do I mean by applying counter-irritant theory to your everyday life? Well, if you’re a naturally anxious, over-sensitive person (which I will admit to being myself) then you will know how a single, overshadowing worry can prey upon your mind. But isn’t it strange how you never have just the single worry for very long? (I always think that they must be lonely and need the company of another trouble or two… Maybe they call up and invite their friends over.)

But what happens to your original worry once it has a couple of baby brothers and sisters to keep it company? Do you stop to notice sometimes that the first worry just isn’t looming over you in the same way it did when it was all alone? It’s not that the substance of your concern has changed in any way: it’s just that you don’t have the mental time and energy to obsess about it in the same way. You have more important, and more numerous things to worry about!

So was it really worth worrying about in the first place, if you can’t prioritise it sufficiently to worry about it full-time anymore? Puts things into perspective, hm? In a weird way it feels better to have a few troubles than just one. It’s like the difference between having an eagle pecking at you, or a cloud of mayflies annoying you. Which would you rather have?

And if your troubles are insufficiently important to prevent a little competition dwindling them down to manageable size, can mere inattention solve perhaps half of them? The thought brings to mind for me several famous quotes. There’s Mark Twain’s famous observation that he’d had numerous troubles through his eventful life, some of which had even actually happened… And Shakespeare said something smart about the coward dying multiple times but the brave man just the once. Because he doesn’t spend the whole time worrying about it! I am also reminded of Napoleon’s possibly factitious habit of refusing to read his correspondence until it was several months old, on the grounds that someone else would deal with anything urgent and everything else didn’t really matter.

Maybe a counter-irritant in troubled times acts like rubbing your leg or arm when you’ve banged or hurt it: a stimulus to the nerves that confuses our perception of pain. If we don’t know what the hell’s going on then how can we worry about it? Or maybe if we have enough problems then we just get bored with thinking about them and our brains go on strike.

Anyway, I think I’ve come up with the solution to all problems: when you have a significant issue/crisis in your life, create chaos in every other area of it and you won’t have the time to worry about it. Just kidding, folks!


1. Wordnik. 'Counter-irritant'. 2010 Available at <> Accessed 19/06/2010.

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