This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I’ve previously written about how a great many of life’s anticipated misfortunes, adversities, trials and tribulations will never come to pass. Much of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and anger is often pointless.

Today, I shall discuss a technique you can use to let go of anxiety.

Bertrand Russell: Nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance

The Remedial Benefits of Deliberating, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

When you face anxiety, nervousness, fear, or worry, try the following technique: imagine all possible negative consequences of the situation you are confronting. Then, conceive of the worst outcome, even if there’s little chance events will turn out that way—imagine everything that could go wrong, in the worst possible way. Envision the worst outcomes.

When you exaggerate your fears and imagine the worst thing that could happen, you make your impending fears look unreasonable. You will realize that even the worst possible scenario isn’t so terrible after all. Often, this deliberation—and your sense of humor—usually restores your perspective on the anxiety you’re facing. You’ll realize that, at the worst, nothing that could happen to you is ultimately that significant.

'The Conquest of Happiness' by Bertrand Russell (ISBN 0871401622) Bertrand Russell, one of the west’s great intellectuals, was an advocate of this ploy. In The Conquest of Happiness, this extraordinary mathematician and brilliant philosopher asserts that happiness is in no way a passive endeavor, but a condition that takes a lot of work. Discussing how to avoid worry through the cultivation of right attitudes, Russell wrote,

A process … can be adopted with regard to anxieties. When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,” you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worse possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.

To Get Rid of Anxiety, You Must First Embrace it

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: What's the Worst That Could Happen Russell’s method of overcoming anxiety and worry hints at the Stoic practice of “premeditatio malorum”—contemplating potential misfortunes in advance and reinstating emotional calm through positive affirmations. This classic technique of the Hellenistic world in due course laid the foundation for exposure therapy where anxiety is treated via exposure to stressful events either in vitro (in the laboratory of the mind) or in vivo (in real life.) Russell provides this explanation of exposure therapy:

Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learned not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. … The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.

Idea for Impact: When confronting your fears, denial is never a wise strategy, positive action is!

The Roman lyric poet Horace advocated, “remember to keep a calm and balanced mind in the face of adversity” (loosely translated from the Latin “aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem” in Odes, II, 3.)

When faced with potential adversity or anticipated worry, try imagining the worst thing that could happen. This strategy for approaching your worries can help you to maintain an assertive, self-determining attitude even in the presence of very real and serious fears and threats.

Temper Your Expectations: Avoid Disappointments in Life

Temper Your Expectations: Avoid Disappointments in Life

The Buddha’s vision of existence is expressed in the truth of pain and suffering. He taught that redemption comes solely from knowledge, the root of which lies in awareness of the reasons for suffering.

'Wisdom of the Buddha' by Max Muller (ISBN 0486411206) According to the first of the Buddha’s Four Nobel Truths, worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory: “This is the truth of pain: birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful, not getting what one wishes is painful.”

Core to the Buddhist approach to life is to lower our expectations, thereby raising our joys. If pain and suffering constitute the gap between what we want and what we have, surely we have the power to change what we want.

Verse 94 in The Dhammapada (ref. Max Muller‘s Wisdom of the Buddha) declares, “The gods even envy him whose senses, like horses well broken in by the driver, have been subdued, who is free from pride, and free from appetites.”

'The Discourses of Epictetus' by Arrian, George Long (ISBN 1934255319) Mirroring the Buddha’s teaching, the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55–135 CE) taught the following (ref. the Enchiridion or the Manual of Epictetus compiled by his disciple Arrian):

But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; … If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. … Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. … Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. … Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing … wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance.”

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. They may change in a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change (e.g., a significant emotional event that shocks them,) people go back to their natural state. Find the people who have the behaviors you want and teach them the skills they need to be productive.

The Nature of Worry

The nature and lifecycle of worry

Have you ever realized that most of your anticipated misfortunes never occur, that some of life’s difficult scenarios never come to pass, or that most of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and life goes on?

Below, I present a simple exercise to help you discover the lifecycle of worry. I encourage you to sit down at a quiet place, somewhere you can relax and reflect. If necessary, fetch yourself a journal, special notebook, or a piece of scratch paper.

Mindfulness Exercise

Consider a recent upheaval or stressful event. Go back in time and experience that moment for a minute. How do you feel? What preoccupies your mind?

Under the direct influence of your anguish, your mind is bewildered. You feel disoriented. Your mind is filled with apprehension. Bearing the burden of this stress, you cannot take your mind off the imagined ramifications. The wounds of your sorrow seem incurable.

Now, fast forward to a few days following the stressful event. What do you experience now? Your troubles no longer hold a grip on your life as before. You feel released from that moment’s immediate affliction. As you reflect the situation’s progress, you feel amazed by how your feelings have changed. What happened to the irreparable hardship?

Storms of Distress

Responses to distress are within your power Allow another interval of time to elapse. How do your feelings compare now? The original despair is diminished further. The event feels formless; your apprehensions are no longer recognizable. You may even find humor in your past misfortune.

A few days later, you are surprised by how easily these storms of distress passed. You wonder how these depressing emotions could have possessed you. The events are not undone and the external circumstances remain unchanged. What has changed is your mind’s condition?

Idea for Impact: “This too shall pass”

“Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.”
Benjamin Franklin

It is your mind that relates external circumstances to your internal being. Joy and sorrow, hopes and despairs, elation and desolation, pleasures and annoyances are nothing but outcomes of your sensibility. Outside forces are challenging to conquer—our control over the exterior world is narrow, and merely illusory. However, the evolution of your thoughts and feelings and your responses to distressing situations are within your power.

The next time you experience a hardship—a conflict, a distressing situation, or annoyance, recall what happened with your prior hardships. Recognize that everything happening in your external environment is but impermanent. Say to yourself, “This too shall pass.”