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.
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.
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
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.
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