From the outside, it's obvious these women were using their "worst" problems as distractions from much worse ones. Yet each claimed, "If I could only fix this one thing, I'd be so happy!" I'll be the first to admit, designated issues are troubling. Tricia was depressed, Annabeth's weight threatened her health, Libbie's loneliness was undeniable, and Kristen's children (like all children) were genuinely vulnerable to life's dangers. But certain characteristics distinguish these issues from everyday problems. I've put together a quiz to help you tell the difference, and the following are also useful guidelines:

1. Designated issues command inordinate mindshare. I recently discovered ants in my guest bedroom—more of a scouting party than an infestation, but still. Ick. I swept them up, booked an eco-friendly exterminator, and stopped thinking about it. This is how we react to ordinary challenges: After taking reasonable action, we relax our attention.

If insect pests were my designated issue, the ants would have absorbed much more mental focus. I'd have called dozens of exterminators, stayed up late researching pesticides, filled my consciousness with anti-ant antics. If you ruminate this way about a single subject, despite the fact that your exertions aren't helping, you've probably got a designated issue on your hands—or, rather, on your mind. Consciously, you want more than anything to be rid of this dilemma. Subconsciously, you depend on it.

2. Designated issues dodge permanent solutions. When we solve a problem, things go according to plan. Designated issues, on the other hand, resist dozens, even hundreds of efforts that should rightfully demolish them. Annabeth's weight keeps popping back up, though she's lost it over and over. The issue isn't genetics; it's that Annabeth sabotages all her own weight loss strategies because her overeating helps her avoid noticing that she and her husband are miserable together.

3. Designated issues synchronize with seemingly unrelated events. When Tricia became depressed, her doctor prescribed a little something to cheer her up. But her mood fluctuated even on antidepressants. Tricia's therapist eventually noticed that Tricia's spells coincided with disagreements between her relatives. Each time the family brewed up a brouhaha, Tricia fell apart. This united the family as if she'd torched her house. Everyone forgot their differences and formed an emotional bucket line to "fix" her.

Similarly, Libbie's loneliness waxed and waned not according to her relationship status but to her marijuana supply (more weed = less loneliness). Spendaholic Kristen grew panicky about her kids right around tax time. My own designated issues spike in response to writing deadlines, which is why, at this moment, I am incredibly worried about my gums.


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