EDNA FOA CONDUCTED RESEARCH on social anxiety
to find out what helped the most to reduce anxiety. The answer
was changing the way a person thought about consequences.
That was the key to whether she succeeded or failed to manage
her anxiety. Specifically, anxious people expect the consequences
of a negative event to be worse than they would actually be.
And of course this makes them more anxious than they need to
When you worry about something, you're
asking yourself, "What if?" You wonder, What if
X happened? And you think the consequences would be terrible.
That's what scares you. What if it happened?
What I've discovered I do (and apparently
I'm not alone) is I stop right there. I don't think beyond
it. I worry, "What if that happened?" and it scares
me so much I don't want to think any more about it. But when
I make myself follow through on the question, my anxiety is usually
cured in short order. Let me give you an example.
When my wife and I first got married, whenever
we had an argument, it made me very upset. I was always afraid
the argument would bring our relationship to an end. My question
was, "What if she leaves me?" It sounds stupid now,
but I never once thought beyond that. It was too awful to contemplate.
This is the woman with whom I share all my dreams. This is my
best friend. This is the one I love with all my heart. It was
too terrifying to think any further than her leaving me. This
worry put me in a panic, and usually my desperation would only
make our fight worse. I wouldn't let us take a break. She wanted
to leave and go for a walk. I wouldn't let her go until we had
resolved our argument. Of course, it is almost impossible to
resolve an argument between two people when both of them are
upset, so my actions prolonged our arguments tremendously.
One day I asked her how she managed to
stay so calm when we argued. I always seemed to flip out but
even when she was mad, she never got anxious or desperate.
"Do any thoughts go through your mind
when we're arguing?" I asked, "Do you say anything
to yourself? Do you picture something?"
Turns out, she did something very specific.
She did it every time and it kept her calm. Like me, she also
had the thought, "What if this is the end of us?" But
she didn't stop there. Rather than recoiling from the thought,
she stood toe to toe with it. She deliberately imagined the worst
that could happen. She tried to see a little movie in her mind
of what would happen if we did divorce. She imagined going through
the sadness, moving to a different place, and going on with her
And as she imagined time passing, she could
see that she would survive, and even if this tragic thing happened,
there would actually be some happiness down the road.
This seemed like a pretty straightforward
technique, so I gave it a try and it really calmed me down. Our
fights became less intense because I wasn't trying so hard to
stop the fight (try to end an argument quickly and it will make
the fight last longer).
Imagining the worst does two things: First
of all, imagining a divorce and us moving away from each other
always makes me sad. No matter how angry I am when I start thinking
about it, I always feel sad because I realize how much I would
miss her. That is a good realization to have during a fight.
It's a perspective that sometimes goes out the window when I'm
angry, and it's worth remembering.
The second benefit is realizing that even
if this worst-case-scenario happened, I could still go on and
be happy. That helps me keep the situation in perspective and
helps me calm down. And my lower anxiety helps me listen. It
helps me speak more calmly and lovingly and rationally.
I tried it the very next time we had an
argument. It worked beautifully. It may have been the first time
we ever argued that I stayed relatively calm. I didn't panic
at all. I didn't get desperate. I tried it again the next argument.
And the next. And that's about all it took. That was fifteen
years ago, and I now never even consider the possibility that
an argument spells doom. It totally cured me of that particular
All I did was think beyond the original
fear. Try it with one of your fears right now. You're afraid
of what? What if it happened? Really, think about it. What if
that terrible thing really happened? What would come next? And
then what? And then what?
Jim says, "I get nervous at work because
I'm afraid my boss is going to get mad at me."
I say, "Okay, what if he does?"
Jim: "It would be upsetting."
Me: "Yeah, so? Then what would happen?"
Jim: "He might write me up. That means
it would be a warning, and one more and I'll be fired!"
Me: "Okay, let's say that happens.
He writes you up, you don't improve, and then he fires you. Then
what would you do?"
Jim: "I'd have to find another job."
Me: "Okay. Could you do that?"
Jim: "Yeah, I think so, but it might
not pay as much as I'm making now."
Me: "So? What would you do then?"
Jim: "I'd have to buy fewer things."
When you follow the line of questioning,
it always seems to peter out into nothing. You realize you could
handle it. You'd live. It wouldn't be catastrophic. It may be
difficult. It may be a challenge, but it ain't nothing to get
TWO MISTAKES IN THINKING
According to the research, the two biggest
mistakes anxious people tend to make is that they think the bad
thing is more likely than it really is, and they think if the
bad thing happens, the consequences would be more horrible than
they really would be.
This is the antidote: Ask the question,
"What would happen then?" and keep following the consequences
out to their natural conclusion, and the whole thing kind of
I need to warn you about something. Please
remember this: It won't work to tell yourself, "It'll be
okay." I've tried it and it doesn't have any impact on anxiety.
You must go through the visualization. See it happening and see
how you'd handle it. Be honest in your imaginings. Try to make
it true-to-life. Don't try to imagine it more positively than
you really think would happen. That's not the point. What do
you think would really happen? Imagine it. And what do
you think you'd really do about it? This will have a definite
and maybe even a dramatic effect on your feelings.
Like a magic bullet, it goes to the heart
of your worry and dissolves it.
In his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,
Dale Carnegie tells the story of a man who cured himself of a
very serious case of anxiety using a method very similar to this.
His name was Earl Haney and he had ulcers. Bad ulcers. One night
he had a hemorrhage and was rushed to the hospital where he stayed.
He had holes in his stomach lining and had to have his stomach
pumped every day. His diet was alkaline powder and tablespoon
of half-and-half per hour. He was in bad shape.
This continued for several months. His
weight dropped from 175 pounds to 90 pounds. Three doctors agreed
he was terminal. Death was inevitable. He was basically waiting
around to die.
Finally a thought dawned on Earl. He realized
he always wanted to travel the world before he died and he figured
if he was going to do it, he'd better go now.
Of course, his doctors flipped out. Earl
would have to pump his own stomach twice a day. Crazy!
Earl went ahead with his plans anyway.
He bought a casket and took it with him so if he died en route,
he could be buried in the family plot back home.
He boarded a ship from Los Angeles to visit
China and India. During the voyage, he gradually gave up on all
the pampering and stomach pumping. He let it go. If he was going
to die, so be it. His worry and tension evaporated. He stopped
worrying. Even during a typhoon, which should have scared him
to death, he actually enjoyed it because he had already looked
at the "what if." It didn't bother him. He'd looked
at the consequences already: He would die and his body would
be sent back to Nebraska. His alternative was wasting away in
a hospital, and he'd much rather die in a typhoon on his way
He started really enjoying himself now
that he was free of constant worries, and he gained 90 pounds
on his trip. His health returned. When he got home, he went back
to work and said he never felt better in his life.
He was cured. He stopped cowering in fear
at what might happen. He had learned to take an honest, unflinching
look at the likely consequences of possible negative events.
The constant worry evaporated into the thin air it was made of.
You can have the same sort of recovery
from your worry. Think about something you have worried about
recently. Now ask yourself, "What if it happened?"
Really. What if it happened? What would you do about it? How
would you respond? And then what would happen? And then
what? And how would you respond to that? Follow it through
as realistically as you can and see if that doesn't have a dramatic
effect on that particular worry.
When your own distress is making things
worse, go ahead and confront the worst that could possibly happen.
Don't just do it briefly. This isn't positive thinking. Don't
merely tell yourself, "Oh, there is nothing to be afraid
of, everything will be all right." That won't work. Imagine
the worst case scenario clearly in your mind. Imagine what would
happen. Imagine time passing. And be realistic. Don't try to
be overly optimistic with your imaginings. Try to imagine what
you really think would happen.
What you discover is that this is not the
calamity you feared. And your increased calm will help make a
calamity less likely.