1. Terrible things are going to happen: You’re going to fail, people won’t like you, your loved ones are in danger, you’ll lose your health.
2. You won't be able to handle it: You'll be overwhelmed, alone, and unable to cope.
1. Likelihood estimates: the probability that our fear will come true
2. Severity estimates: how bad it will be if it actually happens
Let’s look more closely at each of these forecasts.
You probably know from experience that fear exaggerates the likelihood of bad things happening. A number of years ago, our middle child started having frequent headaches. As I was walking to work one day, I was suddenly gripped by the fear that she might have meningitis.
It felt like a realization to me, as though I’d figured something out. I saw in a flash the whole sequence of tragic events—the diagnosis, the hospital stay, the bedside vigils, ending with the devastating loss of our daughter. But like so many of our fears, it wasn’t based in reality—whatever was causing her headaches wasn’t meningitis, and none of these fantasies came true.
As Mark Twain supposedly said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” As a recent study found, about nine out of 10 worries are false alarms. So 90 percent of the time, your fear is lying to you about the bad things that are going to happen.
Unless it’s telling the truth. Ten percent is a lot more than zero. Sometimes the things we’re worried about actually happen, as Twain’s quote implicitly acknowledges. For example, I once worried that our younger daughter’s cough was going to turn into the croup and that she’d be up barking through the night. That was exactly what happened.
So what about the severity—when what we’re afraid of materializes, is it as bad as we expected?
When you pay close attention to your fears, you’ll probably notice that the predicted outcome is always worse than bad. If you’re worried about getting sick on vacation, it’s going to be terrible. If you're late for a meeting, it will be awful. If you lose your job, life will be over. If your relationship ends, you’ll never recover. In one way or another, you won’t be able to handle what you fear.
The problem is that our imagination doesn’t look far enough into the future—we stop at the point at which our fear comes true. It’s as though we’ll meet a cliff, and the bad thing that might happen will be the end of the story. In my croup example, I stopped at the point at which all of us were up half the night.
But think about a time when one of your fears came true. You probably were unhappy about it, and then you moved into problem-solving mode. When our daughter started barking like a seal that night, I drove to a 24-hour pharmacy at midnight and got her some medicine. The next day we had to cope with being a bit tired from the hourly awakenings. It was a problem we could deal with.
So if we kept looking at our fears, we would see ourselves handling what comes our way. No matter what happens, there will always be the next thing we need to do—until the end of life, at which point there’s nothing left to fear anyway. You’ve handled countless problems already to get to this point in your life, and none of them was the end of the story. Each one became a task to attend to.
This is not to say that none of the problems you run into will be a big deal. Sometimes the bad thing that happens is a very, very big deal. But it won’t be what your fear is telling you it will be. It will still be you in your life, doing what you can to respond to what has happened. You'll also have the love and support of those who care about you, which your fear often leaves out.
I recently dived into these ideas with fellow clinical psychologist Dr. Todd Pressman on the Think Act Be podcast. In his excellent book Deconstructing Anxiety, Pressman outlines a program for letting go of our fear—all of it—precisely because it’s always lying to us.
“When we see fear for what it truly is, we recognize one of two things,” said Pressman. “Either it’s a manageable problem, not the disastrous ruin that our fear predicted; or more often than not, it’s just an idea we thought was true, and we find there’s no problem at all.”
Nevertheless, it can be hard to let go of our fears, which we believe are protecting us. We learn to fear in early childhood, according to Pressman, and we keep using fear as a faulty attempt to protect ourselves from threats. “Life can be scary,” said Pressman, so we tell ourselves, “I have to hold onto my fear, or I won’t be prepared for the danger.” We’re unwilling to let go of our anxieties and worries and insecurities because we believe implicitly that they serve a crucial function.
Pressman’s book describes a comprehensive system for working through fear and undoing it. One powerful approach he calls “The Alchemist,” in which we “continue to ask the question, 'What happens next?' he said. 'It’s watching that movie, scene by scene, moment by moment—living through your fear in imagination until eventually, you see, I’ve adjusted, and you arrive on the other side of the fear.'”
He noted that it’s different from saying, “‘Imagine the worst that can happen.’ It’s living through a condensed version of real-time until the fear truly disperses.” Through this process, you realize that fear is not the end of the story, even when what you’re afraid of happens. “The fear that said complete ruin was certain is seen to be at most a manageable problem that we deal with,” said Pressman, “and it loses its teeth.”
Relax and Respond
Anxiety says that every bad thing you imagine is likely to happen and that you’ll be overwhelmed. This prediction is always wrong. In his excellent book on meditation and mindfulness, Sam Harris writes, “Every moment of the day—indeed, every moment throughout one’s life—offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily” (Waking Up, p. 95).
We suffer by worrying about what might be and turning problems into more than something to solve. We relax and respond by letting life be what it is. Instead of trying to know the unknowable in advance, we can open to our experience as it unfolds. That’s where we find ease to move through the hardest times of our lives. That’s where joy and peace are found.
When we encounter problems—which we surely will—we’ll use our skills and experience to take care of them. Notice what happens when you stop believing the lies of fear and see it for what it is.
The full conversation with Dr. Todd Pressman is available here: A Powerful Method to Conquer Fear and Anxiety.
Facebook image: Tommy Lee Walker/Shutterstock
Harris, S. (2014). Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Pressman, T. E. (2019). Deconstructing anxiety: A powerful new Approach for understanding and treating anxiety disorders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.