Feeling Anxious? Try This Reality Check
Overcome negative expectations by facing your fears.
Posted Aug 26, 2020
Anxiety is a normal response to many life circumstances, and can even be helpful in situations where it motivates us to pay attention, work to meet a deadline, or otherwise step up our efforts in a certain area. In its extreme form, however, anxiety can be debilitating. This might especially be the case if you tend to overestimate the probability of negative events and outcomes.
But first, if you suffer from anxiety, recognize that you are not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders constitute the most common mental illness in the United States.[i] They note that anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults nationwide, constituting slightly over 18% of the population. They note that anxiety disorders may stem from risk factors including life events, brain chemistry, genetics, and personality.
Thankfully, when we can identify the source(s) of our anxiety, there are active steps we can take to reduce discomfort, and dispel fear.
The Myth of Negative Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Some people mistakenly believe that if they worry about something, it is more likely to happen. But unless you actively and intentionally mismanage control of the object of your concern, you cannot worry your way into misfortune. To the contrary, anxiety and concern often prompt preventative behavior. You cannot worry your way into developing cancer, but that concern can prompt you to develop healthier habits. You cannot worry your way into failing a test, but exam anxiety might inspire you to study harder.
As a general rule, most things you worry about happening never will. Accordingly, once you identify the source of your anxiety, research reveals that one helpful way to decrease your distress may be to name it and claim it. By acknowledging and facing your fears, you are one step closer to realistically assessing the likelihood they will ever come to pass. In most cases, they won’t.
Relax Through a Reality Check
Lucas S. LaFreniere and Michelle G. Newman described how this works in a study, aptly named “Exposing Worry’s Deceit” (2020).[ii] They began by noting that generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by inaccurate expectations. They sought to explore how demonstrating that fact would benefit people struggling with anxiety.
LaFreniere and Newman note that worry, the primary criterion of GAD, involves thoughts with frequently unrealistic content. They explain that people suffering with GAD may consistently anticipate future events that are unreasonable or exaggerated, even if such events are improbable.
LaFreniere and Newman had 29 participants with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) keep a Worry Outcome Journal for 10 days, and were then traced over 30 days in order to test how many of their GAD worries did not come to pass. They then analyzed the link between the percentage of untrue worries, and GAD symptoms.
Although this was admittedly a small sample size, results showed that 91.4% of worries did not come true; the most common percentage of what they referred to as “untrue worries” per individual was 100%. And as we might imagine, the higher the percentage of untrue worries, the lower amount of GAD symptoms experienced after treatment, in addition to symptom reduction as measured from pre-trial to post-trial.
LaFreniere and Newman concluded that as predicted, disconfirming false expectations can have a significant positive impact on the effect of treatment. They suggest that therapists use techniques to highlight the fact for clients that in most cases, their worries are “unrealistic, unlikely, and unhelpful.” They also note that following up and tracking the actual results of expectations may allow clients to form “more adaptive, evidence-based beliefs and predictions.”
Hope for the Best Instead of Expecting the Worst
It appears that nervously overthinking the “what ifs” in life is usually time wasted. Most of us recognize this logically, because abundant evidence of "worrying about nothing" exists both anecdotally as well as empirically. Although eradicating anxiety completely is an unrealistic goal for most people, taking the time to record and review the non-occurrence of common fears can enhance confidence and decrease anxiety over time. This, in turn, will enhance our quality of life by allowing more time to be spent enjoying the present instead of worrying unnecessarily about the future — because it appears that, thankfully, most of what we fear will happen actually won’t.
[ii] LaFreniere, Lucas S., and Michelle G. Newman. 2020. “Exposing Worry’s Deceit: Percentage of Untrue Worries in Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment.” Behavior Therapy 51 (3): 413–23. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2019.07.003.