This is an essay about overcoming fear and anxiety using different techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The following topics are covered:
- What is Your Worst Possible Outcome?
- A Curse Upon Me: Fear
- My Journey with Fear
- Magical Thinking
- Facing the Worst Possible Outcome
- The Techniques:
- Finding the Good
- Further Reading
What is Your Worst Possible Outcome?
We spend a lot of our time and energy doing whatever we can to avoid the worst possible outcome, but what if we embraced it instead? What if, instead of running, we turned around and looked it in the eye? What would happen if we embraced the fact that we’re going to die, and it might be cancer, it might be a heart attack and it might be a big accident? What if we make peace with the possibility that our husband or wife could very well leave us one day (yikes!), or maybe we forgot to lock the door, or here’s a big one: we could lose everything we own–to a stock market crash, a fire, or we could get fired from our job.
I don’t mean some kind of positive thinking campaign where you try to force yourself to look forward to these tragic experiences, and I don’t mean a passive acceptance of things that might cause you or your relationships harm. Rather, by embracing the WPO, I mean exploring these dark, scary places and asking, “then what?” If the worst happens, then what happens after that? Can I cope? Can I see any goodness in it, no matter how small? I have a little exercise for you: take a moment to look at one of your fears, big or small, and if you’re brave, take a trip to the WPO. Just for a second, look inside and make a note of what thoughts or feelings come up.
The WPO is actually a technique for dealing with fear and anxiety called decatastrophizing in psychology. I’ve been learning how to use it, and I’ll go into this technique in more detail, but first I’d like to share my experiences with fear and anxiety to put this technique into context. Maybe you’ll see yourself here.
A Curse Upon Me: Fear
This post was inspired by a story I was told by a good friend of mine who has been visiting Bali for the last few months. A local man she had gotten to know, a Balinese shaman and healer, had put a curse on her because she would not give him what he wanted. “A curse!? That’s crazy–and scary,” I told her. She shrugged it off, but did mention that she had needed to stand strong in her power to resist the curse. This story made me curious–in our modern age, what is a curse? What does it mean to stand strong against one? In my mind, I see a shoot-out between two gunslingers, dust blowing, sweat dripping and a hard gaze between them, waiting, watching for a flinch. A task of both skill and an unwavering concentration. There is no room for fear in this place.
Even though I don’t believe in the power of curses in the way that a Balinese shaman might, I definitely wouldn’t feel good if someone put a curse on me; it might cause me to have anxiety, which could in turn cause illness or injury. I don’t believe that the power of a curse lies in the curse itself, or the shaman who makes it, but in the accursed’s inability to overcome or rid herself of doubts, fears and anxiety. Taken further, this fear and anxiety and these doubts cannot be brought into existence by a curse, but must already be there in me to begin with. As a proverb states, “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come home to rest.” I’ll give two examples to help illustrate this point: if someone says “the earth revolves around the moon,” you don’t begin to doubt your knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun because you are absolutely certain it does. On the other hand, if someone says, “You’re a bad person,” you could begin to doubt your knowledge that you’re a good person if there are times when you feel like you’re bad.
This course of thoughts brought me to a big realization that I wanted to share; namely, that my doubts, fear and anxiety are like a curse upon me. This begs the question, where did these fear-curses originate, and how do I fight them? In the curse of fear, the battle is all in my head, and there is no shaman, nor a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. In the end, it comes down to believing in myself–my goodness–and the path that I am on.
The subject of fear and how to deal with it has come up a lot in my life, as I believe it does for many people. In more recent times, I was hired to write a book about overcoming fear in pregnancy and childbirth. As a midwife, my client had developed her own birthing techniques based on an accepted theory that fear causes needless pain and suffering during childbirth, as well as most complications and the need for interventions. I did a lot of research about fear for this book, and it helped me flesh out my own thoughts and examine how I deal with fear in healthy and unhealthy ways. My self-education deepened further when, earlier this year, I suffered through a time of heightened anxiety. Luckily I was able to get some help with this, but considering the damaging effects of fear and anxiety that I have seen in my own life and many friends and family members, I have been taking this topic of fear and anxiety quite a bit more seriously.
When did it begin? Like most young children, I was afraid of the dark and monsters under the bed. I relied on many things to help me through these fears, including nightlights, my mother, and my well-developed skill of dashing like a fox into my bed and under the covers after turning the lightswitch off. I also perfected the, “It’s not real” mantra and the “never let your feet dangle over the side of the bed” technique.
By the time I was a teenager, I had developed two strategies for dealing with fear: 1) avoid the fear-causing situation, or 2) simply push the fear away. For example, if I thought that I had forgotten something at home, I would either push that thought away, or go back home and look until I figured out what I forgot. With my fears around cancer, I would either push the thoughts of the C-word out of my head, or start worrying about the food I was eating or bad habits that I want to change. Of the two strategies, I thought that pushing the fear away was the braver, more evolved option. It made me feel strong. For example, pushing fear away helped me to do a lot of scary things, like jumping off a bridge into a lake, learning to drive, or travelling alone to Europe when I was 18. I used many methods for pushing fear away, including distraction, prayer, reciting affirmations, or using blunt logic (people have a much higher chance of getting in an accident in a car than in a plane, so GET ON THE PLANE).
As I grew into an adult, I developed a bit of a superstitious nature. For example, I sometimes touch wood if I mention something about the future that I want to happen, and I learned to avoid thinking or speaking about negative things because I feared it might make them come true. If something bad does happen to me, I often begin to think that I’m being punished (by whom I don’t know!). Even though this is totally irrational, when I’m having a bad day, this type of thinking just creeps in.
In psychology, this superstitious way of thinking is called magical thinking. If you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket, worn a lucky charm, crossed your fingers, looked for ‘a sign’, or gone to check to make sure you locked the door–a second time–then you have engaged in magical thinking. Although I personally believe that there can definitely be value in magical thinking, I also believe that there are dangers. People who suffer from certain mental health disorders, such as depression, OCD, anxiety, and psychosis (schizophrenia, mania, etc.), often engage in magical thinking. This doesn’t mean that magical thinking causes mental health disorders, just that there is a correlation between the two phenomena.
Magical thinking has come into mainstream culture lately with the book, The Secret. The book describes “the law of attraction as a natural law that determines … our personal lives through the process of ‘like attracts like.’ That is, as we think and feel, a corresponding frequency is sent out into the universe that attracts back to us events and circumstances on that same frequency.” (quoted from wikipedia page on The Secret). There is definitely some truth to the fact that positive thinking can help us achieve our goals, but when taken to the extreme, this same ‘law’ can be very unhelpful and even damaging. For example, when something bad happens, if you believed in this ‘law’ you could easily deduce that your thinking, or ‘frequency,’ caused the bad thing to happen. Or, if you don’t manage to achieve your goals, then you could easily deduce that you have the wrong ‘frequency,’ rather than look at the circumstances or your behaviour for a balanced view of why things might not have worked out. Critics of the book have also pointed to the fact that this outlook can be used as a victim-blaming tool that marginalizes people in our society.
I note these criticisms because I have realized that magical thinking has definitely played a large role in my anxiety. In fact, one of my earliest strategies for dealing with fear (pushing it away) is based in magical thinking–the belief that by thinking about what I am afraid of, I will draw it to me, and by not thinking about it, I will keep it away.
To learn more about magical thinking, see the links at the bottom of this post in the section called Further Reading.
Facing the Worst Possible Outcome
A third strategy, facing the WPO, did not come to me until much more recently. Even now, I can say that sometimes it is very difficult for me to do, as it feels a little like a betrayal, like purposely opening an umbrella inside or walking under a ladder. Like I will bring the feared situation to me–magical thinking. But I have found a great relief in this third strategy and I use it all the time now when I have anxiety. For example, when I think that I might have forgotten something, my thoughts go like this:
“Okay, it might be true, maybe I forgot something. What’s the worst possible outcome? I could look like a fool at the meeting. And then what? People would think less of me and I could lose my job, though that’s not very likely. But say I do lose my job. That’s the WPO. Then what? I’ll get depressed. Then what? Then… one day I’ll get out of bed and look for a new job. Then what? Well, I’ll get a new job. And it might even be better than the job I have now. So, I might have forgotten something, but I’ll deal with it if it happens.”
Or with cancer, I think:
“Okay, it might be true, I might get cancer because many, many people do. If it happens, it will change my life in many ways and I might even die, but I could also survive and I would learn how to deal with chemotherapy or the changes it would bring, and I would find the support that I need. It could even be a force of good in my life, and help me to live my life more fully.”
Wow, as I write that, it makes me emotional, because cancer is one of my biggest fears. It’s a curse, really. Where did this curse of cancer come from? I believe it was my grandfather who originally cursed me with a fear of cancer as a child, by telling me often that I could get it because my father died of a genetic form of cancer that I had probably inherited. Anything that I did that he thought was cancer-inducing would bring up the subject. Like wearing nail-polish even! I was cursed again when I was 16 and went to a clinic at UBC studying families with genetic forms of cancer. They have been studying my family genes for a few generations, and they wanted me to participate in their program. They told me that my odds of getting cancer and the types of treatments that I could expect. It was very disturbing, and fear-inducing. A curse, really. And my way of dealing with it was that I wanted nothing to do with it. I never went back to that clinic.
We’ve all been cursed with fear by different experiences in our lives. As in the case of my fear of cancer, the people who cursed me never had any intention to harm me, and in fact, the opposite is true: they were trying to help me. My fears aren’t special–they’re the same as almost everyone else. Everyone fears illness, injury, death and the loss of loved ones, the loss of status, being rejected, not belonging. When those fears possess me, cause me to freeze in my actions and determine the paths I take in life, then I am not free. Facing the worst possible outcome is my way of accessing freedom. I hope the techniques below will help you as they have helped me.
Technique #1: Decatastrophizing
*Disclaimer:* I am not a therapist and this won’t necessarily be a good strategy for everyone to use against their fears, especially alone. I learned this technique from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and I practiced it alone, so I think it can work for others too. It’s called decatastrophizing. For this to work, you need to be really honest with yourself, and you need to do be ready to let your anxiety go. So here it is:
- Take a small situation to begin with that causes you anxiety. Maybe you want to write it down, although I do it in my head.
- Now figure out what the WPO is in that situation. It might not be obvious at first.
- Now say to yourself “If the WPO happens, then what?” but replace the words WPO with the actual dreaded event.
- Now really imagine yourself in the WPO, what will you do?
- If you find yourself using general descriptive terms like, “I’ll panic” or “I’ll freak out,” then continue on with your questioning: “If I panic, then what?” How long will you panic for, what will you do after you panic? What will you do while you panic?
- Keep up this line of questioning until you get to the point where you can imagine that you’ve passed the WPO and you’re just living your life again, normally.
- Either think about or write down where you underestimated your ability to cope with the situation. People have coped with losing a leg, going through Nazi concentration camps, going to jail, and being raped. They have coped with cancer. Superman Christopher Reeves coped with total paralysis of his body. You might think that you won’t be able to cope, but the likelihood is that you will be able to, so let that feeling of being able to cope come up in you. That strength.
- Now either think about or write down where you overestimated how horrible the situation would go. Would you really lose your job for forgetting to bring something to a meeting? Will you really die if you get cancer? Will your life really be horrible if your girlfriend dumps you?
Now, I didn’t learn this next part from a book, but it really helps me:
After you’re done, say to yourself “If __________ (the WPO) happens, I will be okay.” Say it until you believe it. Let yourself believe it, most importantly. Let go of your belief that you are so weak that you can’t cope or deal with what life throws at you. For example, “If I get cancer, I will be okay.” Or, “If I make a fool of myself, I will be okay.” Or, “If they laugh at me, I will be okay.” Or, “If she dumps me, I will be okay.” Feel it. Think about the times in your life that you’ve overcome something similar, and remember how you dealt with it, even though it was so hard. When the anxious thoughts come back again, just repeat your mantra until you believe it.
After all is said and done, I will admit that I often don’t actually believe in many ways that I would be able to deal with the WPO. Like losing my love. Sometimes I worry he could get into an accident, for example, and I know that I would survive, physically, but there is a part of me that feels like it would destroy me completely. Like I wouldn’t be able to live with it. But when I use the WPO technique, I just trust in the fact that I would survive. I know logically that I would survive because I know people who have survived cancer, losing their leg, losing their wallet, losing a beloved, etc. So I guess it’s just about believing in the time after the grief. Not to say that the grief would be easy or that there wouldn’t be intense grief, but to trust that I would eventually get over it. Also, to allow myself to get over it. Because sometimes I have this idea that if I allow myself to get over something, then I’m not being loyal. This is also magical thinking, and I’ve seen people close to me lose years and years of their lives to this type of ‘loyalty’.
Technique #2: Finding the Good
This second technique I learned from Byron Katie. She uses this technique in part of her larger technique called ‘The Work’, which is 4 questions that you ask yourself about something that is really bugging you. I’m not going to go into the larger technique, just the part about facing the WPO.
- Imagine yourself in the WPO, but you don’t have to go too deep into it this time. Just identify exactly what it is that is causing your anxiety. For example, if you are anxious every time you leave your house because you think you forgot something, but it’s not actually forgetting something that is causing your anxiety, but the consequences of forgetting something, then identify that consequence that you’re so afraid of. Like losing your job, looking like a fool, etc.
- Now find three good things that could come if the WPO actually happened. No matter how small or insignificant they would be compared to how great your loss would be, just find them. For example, if I lost my job I would have more time to write, I might find a better job and I wouldn’t have to hang around with so and so, who is really annoying. If I got terminal cancer, I could finally take that trip because I wouldn’t have to worry about saving money, I’d get to see what my head looks like bald (I loved Sinead O’Conner as a girl and I always wanted to shave my head but didn’t have the courage), and I would have more quality time with friends and family. Oh yeah, I’d get to act like a real jerk!
You might feel really guilty about using this technique, especially if the WPO is about someone else leaving you or dying, but remember, this isn’t about being happy that they leave you or that they died. This is about being honest with yourself about your ability to cope with the situation. This is about facing the WPO with courage. If you really have a difficult time with this technique, examine where you might be using magical thinking to your disadvantage. Are you afraid that by thinking about the WPO, you will make it come to you? That’s magical thinking. Are you telling yourself that you are betraying someone by thinking about the possibility of being okay when they’re gone? That’s magical thinking. I don’t want you to give up your beliefs, but if your beliefs are hurting you and stopping you from living life to your potentials, then maybe you want to look at that.
- I learned about facing the Worst Possible Outcome from two sources:
- Here is more info about decatastrophizing: Decatastrophising in Cognitive Therapy
- Here is a decatastrophizing worksheet.
- This is a great article with information about anxiety, magical thinking and lots of tips and techniques: Self-help strategies for anxiety relief.
- This is a great and balanced article in Psychology Today talking about how and why we use magical thinking and some forms it takes.
- Here is an article in Scientific American about some research that showed that superstition and magical thinking can be helpful.