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Sometimes Imagining the Worst Is the Best Thing to Do

Rather than being a victim of your anxiety, take action.

Key points

  • Your anxiety can create endless worst-case scenarios.
  • But sometimes imagining the worst and developing a plan to deal with it can help reduce the obsessing.
  • By planning and then acting, you have more control and feel less like a victim of your situation.
PD pics/pixabay
Source: PD pics/pixabay

Kate is worried about getting laid off from her job. Tim applied to only a couple of colleges that fit what he wants to do but is obsessing about whether or not he’ll get in. Carly admittedly took a risk with her start-up business and can’t stop thinking about what it means if it doesn’t work out.

Kate, Tim, and Carly are all struggling with legitimate, rational anxiety. The problems are real—the job, the college acceptance, the business risk, and the emotional centers in their brains—their amygdalas—are in high gear. They obsess all the time or wake up at 3 a.m. in a panic, imagining never-ending worst-case scenarios—Kate being unemployed and financially struggling, Tim not getting into the program he wants and having to settle for a lesser program or changing his career goals, Carly worrying that her whole business venture and her dream will blow up in her face.

Anxiety—those hyperactive guard dogs constantly barking, overreacting to any dangers ahead—take over. It's exhausting.

One way of reducing the anxiety of all this is to focus on quieting the barking dogs. This is about getting out of your emotional brain—by meditating, being mindful, exercising to pump up endorphins—and/or considering anti-anxiety medication to help calm the over-reaction and gain a better perspective—all good ideas.

But even though those barking dogs are a bit too intense, they are usually barking for a reason; while having tools to lower your anxiety is important, you're still left with the other half of the equation, namely, the real-world problem that you need to resolve. This is where the best strategy is not just calming down the dogs but also going ahead and imagining the worst-case scenario. Why?

Because by imagining the worst case, you stop going down the seemingly endless rabbit hole of worry and get to the end of that tunnel. Once you’ve stopped running, you can step back and more realistically assess the situation. It enables you to be proactive, and being proactive is always a good antidote to anxiety.

Rather than letting your brain control you, you're going offense and controlling your brain. Once you've prepared yourself for the worst by having a plan, you can stop obsessing about it.

What does this mean for Kate, Tim, and Carly?

Get information and create a detailed plan

Rather than worrying about the ax dropping and panicking, Kate takes realistic stock of her money, expenses, and savings. Can she get unemployment? If she does get laid off, are there other job opportunities that she needs to check out now so she knows she has something to move toward? Worst case: How long can she go without a job? Are there other jobs that fit her skills?

Can Tim reapply next year if he doesn’t get into his top colleges? Are there other programs he hasn’t discovered and needs to check out? If he does have a gap year, can he use that time to buff up his application—internships or work experience—or, worst-case, does he need to begin to think of other careers that are similar but still rewarding?

If Carly’s venture doesn’t work out, what does that mean financially? Even though her business may take a hit, is it over, and she needs to give it up and look for a job, or can she salvage it, albeit scaled down, until she can get back on her feet?

Take action

Now that they’ve taken stock and run toward what they fear, it’s time for concrete action. Kate starts looking for other jobs to see what opportunities are there. Tim expands his college search, talks to others in the field for advice, or looks into related internships or job experiences. Carly does the same—crunches the numbers, meets with a financial analyst, and looks for other jobs just to know that she has skills that others want, even if she needs to put off her dream for a few years.

The key here is to move forward despite the worry. To anticipate the worst so it isn’t constantly lurking in the background. To gain control by controlling the process and running toward what you fear rather than be victimized by your emotions.

Is it time to step up?


Taibbi, R. (2015). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anger, anxiety & depression. New York: Norton.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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