Do you tend to get overly anxious about outcomes in the future that are totally out of your control? Do you spend so much time worrying that it affects your body and health?
If this sounds familiar, then stick with me, because today we’re going to cover a simple, powerful tool that can help you radically release that anxiety and feel more at peace starting now.
When we’re nervous about something in the future, we’re going to become tense—at that point, it is impossible to be confident.
In fact, this doomed view of the future even has a name in psychology, and that name is very telling: catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is when we build something up negatively in our minds to the point where we can’t let it go. We let our brains become overwhelmed with a sea of “What ifs” and it shows in our faces, bodies, and the demeanor we present to others.
Now, there are plenty of ways to counteract this type of anxiety, such as meditation—but today, I want to share with you a tool that I picked up while working with anxiety experts in graduate school: the power of mathematics.
Don’t worry—we’re not about to relive your high school pre-calc class.
Let’s start by thinking of something that you are worried about in the future—a “what if” that’s been looming over you, creating unnecessary anxiety. For example, I have a client who works in ecommerce and recently found out that one of the products he was selling did not comply with regulations, and he immediately removed it from his site—now he’s terrified that he will be criminally prosecuted for it (“What if I end up in jail and can’t care for my family?!”).
Obviously, to you and me, this seems like a pretty big stretch . . . but for him, it’s a legitimate concern that causes daily stress. So, what’s the best way to deal with irrational fears?
When we create a negative outcome in our minds, we set the probability far too high—say a 90-100% chance—that it’s going to happen.
Can you imagine if you believed that you would get into a horrible accident every time you drove a car? You’d be a mess! Instead, though, we know that when driving, there’s something like a 1 in 10,000 chance (maybe even less) that you’ll end up in some kind of fatal pile-up.
But here’s the thing about probabilities that is really going to help us out today: when put in a sequence, the chances of events being carried out become even smaller.
Let’s say you have a six-sided die, and you want to know the probability of rolling a 6—it’s one in six, right? But what about on the next roll? What’s the probability that you will roll a six again? If you want to know the likelihood of rolling two sixes in a row, the probability is actually 1 in 36 (1/6 X 1/6)!
But why is this so important when it comes to our everyday nagging worries? Because we live life in sequences of events.
For every “What if” you create, there is a sequence of specific events that needs to unfold for that one negative outcome to take place.
So, let’s go back to my client from earlier: what would need to happen for him to end up in jail with his family destitute and alone? Well, to begin with, he’d have to be knowingly selling something dangerous or illegal; then the company he works for would have to find out about it; then his bosses would have to care enough to do something about it, while also dragging their own names through the mud; then they’d have to commit to taking him to court; then prosecutors would have to investigate the case and find hard evidence of criminal activity; then his lawyers would have to fail horribly at the trial; then he’d have to turn down whatever plea they might offer him; then he’d have to lack the resources necessary to pay his bail.
Wow . . . that’s a lot.
Can you see how even just mapping out this series of events can bring relief? Once you get to the third or fourth step in the sequence, the likelihood of that thing happening just seems ridiculous.
For my client, we could have stopped after step one, because he’d never knowingly done anything dangerous or illegal (this was something he’d never considered before taking the time to think it through). In fact, he’d sacrificed potential profits for himself in order to do something good for his customers.
Need even more assurance? Get out your calculator.
Let’s say you’re my client: I want you to go through each step in the sequence above and give a probability you think is reasonable for each step taking place. Now, go ahead and multiply them until you come to a final probability for the entire sequence.
All finished? What did you come up with? If your math is anywhere close to ours, you came up with something like .72% probability. That means for every hundred times this scenario presents itself, it’s not even going to result in being sentenced with jail time ONCE.
Now, if we’re being really honest, the probability is even lower than that because he was basically estimating close to a 50% chance for each step, and we already established that step one is probably close to 0%. In any case, you can easily see how just going through this process will give you an almost instant sense of relief.
With each step you go through, you are taking your power back by simply showing yourself that it’s not already a done deal.
In addition, this process gives you an even greater sense of peace in knowing you have a game plan should the absolute worst-case scenario play itself out.
In short, you are not a victim in your own life—you do have power and choice regarding the things that happen to you . . . AND you have the ability to control your thoughts and emotions about them so that you can handle whatever happens along each step of your life’s journey.
I’m very curious to know how this process is serving you, so please share your experiences and thoughts below! What is your biggest daily “What if”? How many steps would it take for that thing to happen? What is the final probability of it coming to fruition? Truly take the time to get out those calculators and do the math, because it will greatly reduce your anxiety and put things into perspective in a way that will create a delightfully newfound peace of mind.
Until we speak again, may you have the courage to be who you are and to know on a deep level that you’re awesome.