Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D
I want explore two big beliefs linked to anxiety. The two aren’t necessarily conscious; they’re more of an invisible undercurrent. But like a riptide, these waters may be dangerous or even pull you under.
1. “The worst-case scenario is sure to happen.”
You probably know someone who can find the silver lining of any misfortune: A loved one dies and they are thankful the person’s suffering has ended. They’ve been fired but relish the opportunity to start anew. On the flip side, you probably also know someone who complains about everything: The beach was too sandy. The sangria was too fruity. And you probably know (or are) someone who can imagine a worst-case scenario for any situation: You have a headache? It’s a brain tumor! There’s traffic? Your boss is sure to notice when you walk in late. Vacationing in Cancun for a week? If you drink the water, you’ll be sick the whole time!
This is the dubious power of anxiety—the ability to amplify a situation that’s anything from ambiguous to slightly threatening into a full-on catastrophe. Sometimes this is useful—you see your kids hauling a toboggan up the playground slide and assume they’re not just planning on enjoying the view from the top. But other times it’s not so useful: We may foresee big problems in small challenges: You make a mistake at work and dread that you’ll get fired. Your partner doesn’t respond to a text so they must be mad at you. Sometimes we’re not even sure what we’re anxious about; we’re simply convinced that something bad is going to happen.
What should you do when your brain makes Mount Everest out of a molehill?
When a worst-case scenario starts to freak you out, ask yourself, “How bad would that really be?” In other words, are you truly facing a disaster of epic proportions? For example, “What if we don’t get any offers on the house?” How bad would that be? Take a step back and think. “It wouldn’t be ideal. I’d have to rethink some financial decisions, but I could put it on the market again next year.”
The second question to ask yourself is, “What are the odds?” How probable is it that you really have a brain tumor? Is it more likely that you’re just stressed out or dehydrated? What are the odds that your partner didn’t text you back because she’s mad? Is it possible she’s just busy or that she left her phone in the car?
At least one of these questions—if not both—should address most of your anxious thoughts.
2. “I can’t handle it.”
The second reason for anxiety is we think we’re helpless. It makes sense: If we don’t feel prepared, we become anxious.
Anxiety makes us doubt our abilities, and so our fear feels like fact. We feel incapable, so we believe we must be incapable. We feel overwhelmed, so we must be.
What’s the best way to fight back when the fear feels real?
Your magic question here is: “What could I do?” Think of all the resources you can turn to tackle anxieties that could become reality—friends, family, inner strength, healthinsurance, chutzpah, etc. How would you cope? What could you do?
If you really had a brain tumor (even though you know it’s probably just a headache), what would you do? You would find a good oncologist, take time off from work, adhere to your treatments, and rely on friends and family. It wouldn’t be a cakewalk—it would be really, really hard. But the point is that there are things you could do. The situation wouldn’t be hopeless.
Thankfully, most of our worries aren’t that traumatic. What if your vacation gets rained out? What would you do? Get to know every museum in the city, or buy a really big umbrella and go out in spite of the weather. Worried you’ll never find the right partner? Well, what could you do? Enjoy your life, spend time getting to know people, and trust that the right person will come along eventually. And if they don’t, you’ll still have built a great life with a wide circle of friends. Your worries may seem overwhelming, but you can cope with pretty much anything life throws at you, from curveballs to screwballs.
Bonus: While hunting anxiety in the wilds of your brain, look out for the distinctive plumage of a question mark. Anxious statements are almost always phrased as questions: What if? What then? What now? And questions are slippery—they’re hard to combat, and the answer is almost always negative. When you catch yourself asking questions that begin with “What if…” change your question to a statement and then challenge it. For example, “What if the plane crashes?” is hard to answer positively—that would be a disaster. Change the question to a statement—“The plane is going to crash”—and now you can tackle it by asking, “What are the odds of that happening?