Anxiety Is Nothing More Than A Fear Of “What If” *
I panicked when I spotted the red balloon tied to a storm drain. Close to Halloween of 2017 and near the release of the Stephen King novel turned movie — It — someone played a prank on their neighbors. Without even realizing what I was doing, I mouthed “You’ll float down here, too.” The sentence uttered is from the novel (and subsequent movies) in which a deranged clown lures children into the sewers and murders them. That I said the iconic words aloud sent shivers down my spine. I quickly reminded myself that Pennywise the Clown was a figment of the master of horror’s imagination and nothing more.
”How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.”— Thomas Jefferson, A Decalogue of Canons №8, 1825
As a child, clowns terrified me. My mom can recall a particular moment where I sat watching an episode of Sesame Street featuring the Ringling Brothers Circus. Midway through the show, an entourage of clowns appeared. I ran out of the room screaming bloody murder only to hide under my bedsheets for the next thirty minutes. We never attended circuses growing up due to my pronounced fear of clowns. With time, the fear eased to that of a once small child. My amends with clowns lasted until my teenage years when I watched the TV adaptation of It and once more crawled out of my skin. What saved me from multiple evenings of nightmares was the absurd ending (the kids face off against a giant CGI tarantula instead of the evil clown). Instead of a gnawing sense of fear, I laughed.
I’ve never enjoyed horror films as they give me the creeps. A friend once asked where my fear stemmed from, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. Later, I realized with horror movies — or any movie I found scary — I believed when I turned off the lights, E.T. would probe me, Pennywise would eat me, or some ghost would haunt me. In life, I found the same to be true with my career and relationships. My girlfriend would leave me for someone sexy, my boss would fire me for a minor mistake, and I’d end up homeless.
My fear — and yours I’m willing to bet — always boil down to worst-case scenarios that will never happen. Dwell on them longer than a day, and the stress manifests. Within a week, the anxiety they produce will become crippling. With one third of adults reporting anxiety and 50% of college students seeking help for theirs, the sum of all our fears is simply this: what if?
“What If” Syndrome
One scenario that plays on repeat is a fantasy where the non-profit I work for runs out of money and can no longer afford to pay my salary. Afterwards my wife leaves and finds a new lover. That may sound absurd to you, but some of that fear is grounded in reality. My first wife abruptly left while I was deployed to Iraq and got married six months after our divorce. Due to a difficult year and not meeting fundraising goals, our non-profit ended up on pay-cuts for several months in 2017.
For most of us, our fears are not necessarily illogical. There’s a smidgeon of truth lurking somewhere behind them. What causes the anxiety, however, is when the minuscule chance of said event happening becomes the sole focus of what we fret about. We play the scenario in our head as if it will become gospel truth. If I have to confront this person, we’ll get in a verbal sparring match and then they’ll hate me. If I assert myself and set boundaries, my boss will fire me. If I end up in a large social setting, I’ll panic and cause a scene.
Behind our anxious mindset and fear is always the question, what if? But the chances of the thing we’re so afraid of happening actually happening is low. In a recent study, researchers asked participants to write their fears over a lengthy time period. They then had to identify which of their imagined misfortunes didn’t happen. Here’s what the study found:
- 85% of what the subjects worried about never happened
- 15% of the subjects had their worst fears manifest, but 79% of them found they could handle the difficulties better than expected or learned from them.
What the study showed is that 97% of what we fret, worry, and fear is nothing more than an anxious mind that would have you believe an exaggerated worst-case scenario. And here’s why your fear and anxiety is fabricated — you can’t predict the future. Therefore, there’s no way to guarantee your fear will happen the way you imagine.
A close friend and I had issues in our relationship a few years ago. I knew we needed to have a hard conversation, but I was resistant. The problem stemmed from the fact I became convinced he wouldn’t listen and our relationship would implode. After our friendship exploded into a fiery ball of wrath, he’d bad mouth me. Our mutual friends would side with him and turn against me. I‘d end up alone and friendless. Each time I thought about confronting him, this fantasy would unfold. I would even play out hypothetical conversations in my head. If he says A then I’ll say B. If he says C though, I’ll say D.
I finally bit the bullet and set up a time to chat. Unlike my internal scorched earth head games, our conversation went great. We made amends, hugged, and grew stronger in our friendship. The entire event was peaceful and drama free. Nothing I imagined was even close to the way things played out. That’s because I can’t predict the future, and neither can you.
When we grow anxious or crippled by the thought of having to act (or belief we’ll fail), the events that transpire never play out how we think they will. Even when the worst happens, it’s still a far cry from our exaggerated imagination. Real troubles happen when we’re not expecting them. More often than not, it’s a Wednesday at 2pm when you get into a random fender bender. Not the cross-country trip where you get robbed at a truck stop and end up in a Deliverance style run-for-your-life scenario. While most of us know this information, it doesn’t keep us from worrying does it? We know it’s unfounded fear, but like a dog seeking old chicken in the trash, we can’t help ourselves.
Mastering Your Fear and Anxiety
“The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”―Steven Pressfield
There’s no way to rid yourself of fear completely. However, there is a way to combat it that I’ve found reduces anxiety. My wife once shared her secret to keeping things in perspective, but upon hearing her technique I realized the tactic could help ease worry and anxiety. It’s a simple practice that uses our mental tendency to lean toward the worst-case situation. What’s the trick to mastering your fear and worry? Play out the entire worst-case scenario.
Earlier I stated my fear is a hypothetical event where my company runs out of money and my wife leaves. Because it’s happened in the past, those memories can trigger fear. The trick is embracing the fear and playing it out to fruition. For instance:
Okay, you lost your job and your wife left. Now what? Well, I’d be devastated for months. Maybe get super depressed. Then what happens? I’d rage and be angry. Maybe I run out of savings, go broke, and I live on ramen noodles. Okay, what next? I guess I’d look for another job. Maybe live with friends and family. Good. What happens next? I guess, — eventually — I’d bounce back. That’s what happened last time.
Even in my worst-case scenario, none of what I imagine will play out in reality because — as stated — I can’t predict the future. However, this technique not only reduces my fear of imaginary events, but shows me I can keep pushing forward despite setbacks. Additionally, this mental exercise works in everyday life. Let’s say you’re a college student. Your fear is failing a major test in which you don’t get into a specific program. Play out what happens next all the way to the dreadful end. What happens next? Do you choose a new program? Do you redouble your efforts and try again? Do you sink into depression? If so, what happens after the depression?
Whatever the event, when you play it out in full, there’s usually a silver lining. Perhaps there are friends who would support you. Family that loves you. Another job market you could enter. Another test to take. Other fish in the dating pool.
No matter how illogical, play out your fears. Only then will you be able to face them. Your significant other cheats on you? Play it out. End up broke? Play it out. Shark attack? Play it out. That way, if your fear is getting probed by E.T. like it was mine, you’ll know the cuddly extraterrestrial will — at the least — get punched in the mouth.
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