Worst-Case Scenario: a Trick for Overcoming Fear

Friday, June 17th, 2011

I’ve done a lot of things in my life that could be considered scary.

Long before I ever moved into an RV, I moved my family hundreds of miles away from our home and our support system. Many of our friends said that sounded scary (and it was). Then there was the time I decided to go ahead and have and raise that baby when I was 19, despite my lack of a college education or a husband. People do it all the time, my own mother had done it twenty years earlier, but it was still scary as hell. Between those two big leaps there have been countless smaller ones; we all make scary decisions in life.

How do we do it? How do we face our fears and find the courage to take the big leaps?

I spend time thinking about the worst-case scenario.

When faced with a risky decision, I think about all of the ways things could go wrong. My husband says this is an insane exercise that does nothing to ease his anxiety, but I find it’s easier to face potential challenges in my head long before I have the chance to encounter them in real life. It gives me an opportunity to:

  1. Come up with a plan of attack.
  2. Decide if I could live with the outcome.

For example, before we decided to travel for a year, I considered a few worst case scenarios. We end up broke 6 months into the trip? Because we own our travel trailer, we have a place to live. Jared can find work anywhere and so can I, so we should be able to feed ourselves and our children. His parents have a really big house with a finished basement that we could probably move into if we really had to. We’re two able-bodied adults with family and friends all over the country, and we’ve already proven to ourselves that we can start our lives over if necessary. Turns out, our worst-case scenario isn’t that bad.

It’s so much easier to analyze, plan and accept potential consequences hypothetically than it is when you’re in the middle of a crisis. It also gives me a sense of calm because it reminds me just how much I could handle if I had to.

Of course, life has a way of surprising us with problems we don’t anticipate. There’s no way to have a contingency plan for every possible obstacle we might encounter, but the exercise itself makes me feel like I could handle the surprises. And besides, those unexpected encounters aren’t usually the ones that stop us from taking risks anyway. It’s the stuff we vaguely imagine in the dark, cloudy corners of our mind, the almost indescribable fear of something bad that could happen if we venture beyond our comfort zones.

I think one of the reasons playing mental footsie with the worst-case scenarios is so powerful for me is because it forces me to name my fears.

It’s easier to fight an enemy you can see.

I don’t want to be defeated by invisible demons. I want to see what’s holding me back so I can decide for myself what next step I’ll take. For me, that means dancing with a few worst-case scenarios from time to time.

What’s your best trick for overcoming fear?

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  1. Kim says:

    Awesome. That’s an amazing way to live. : ) Someone told me once to expect the best, but plan for the worst, just in case. Great minds think alike.

    And my trick? It’s the whiteboard in my mind. I think you and I talked about it once. : )

  2. kirida says:

    I think you have to embrace the fear, give yourself space to feel it and then move toward a solution. I know I’m afraid of a lot of things, so that’s where I am, in the embracing stage. Hopefully, I’ll move past it and get to a better place. This post is great for making me think about this.

  3. Mrs. G. says:

    I’ve been reading you for a long time (I became hooked after your cheerleading video!P but only commented once, maybe twice. I have to chime in tonight and tell me your writing of late has been immensely inspiring to me. I look forward to following your journey, the physical and the mental.

  4. Robin says:

    I have been playing the “what’s the worst that could happen….will it kill me” game whenever I get afraid of something. I tend to get caught up in my thoughts and fears (especially at work). So, when I notice I have a thought that freaks me out I stop whatever I am doing, grab a pen and scrap paper, and do the following:

    - Write down the fear/concern as if it happened/is happening/will happen. I write down whatever the thought is fully.
    - Write down the question, “what’s the worst that can happen?” next to it, and name every scenario that’s in my head about that fear at that time.
    - Write down the question, “will it really kill me if (insert scenario here)……?” and go down the list again, literally forcing myself to answer yes or no and why. By that point, I am laughing and/or I feel a little bit better because I realize how irrational my fears and thoughts are/were and my mind already shifts towards solutions rather than doomsday.

    It seems like the process is long and boring, but it tends to identify crazy unrealistic thoughts pretty quickly for me and helps me break out of that “doomsday mindset” cycle we all get caught up in.

    • Dory says:

      I love it! Taking it a step further so you can laugh at yourself! I’m doing that next time!

      I always imagine the worst case scenario then my next step is to take an Ativan then hide in the closet awhile. Yours is MUCH better!

  5. Cort says:

    I’m in the middle of a crisis. Reading this really helped me rationalize the mind-racing, what-if-scenario-running, and never-quite-actually-falling-asleeping.

    “It’s easier to fight an enemy you can see” is a perfect encapsulation of my mind’s way of coping.

    Thank you.

  6. Hockeymandad says:

    My trick is to run like hell! When it catches me, I just let it punch me in the balls and finally be done with it. Probably not the best idea, but I’ve learned to run really fast!

  7. yep, i pretty much do the same.
    “why am i afraid to do x?”
    “what is the worst that could happen?”
    “if worst happens, what is the worst that can come of that?”
    all manageable…
    annnnnnnnd go!
    (unless we are talking about me breaking bones in which case i will sit my happy ass out of the event since that is not something i want to deal with at almost 40.)

  8. Boy ! You are having the time of your life.Please keep us posted.

  9. Lisa says:

    You have no idea how much I needed this today. I had a friend who always used to say “they can kill you but they can’t eat you.” I had forgotten that.

  10. Selma says:

    Remember that book ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”? I used to think that was a load of bunkum, but it’s actually true. I think when we are fearful of situations we just have to dive into them and face them. Somehow doing that seems to dilute the fear. I also think that having a worst-case scenario really helps because then we realise we will be alright no matter what. Great post and excellent insights!

  11. I don’t let fear enter my mind,when it come my way I deal with it the best way I can,or I ask some trusted friends what I should do.

  12. I write a lot on this topic. I have spent the past 14 years living and travelling around the world, so I have gotten pretty used to just feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

    I think if you dwell too much on all that can go wrong it will paralyze you into not doing the thing you want to do. As you say Ask yourself “What is the worst that can happen?” If you can live with that than just do it.

    You start to learn in the end that there really is no worst, just as it should be, and you are perfectly equipped to handle it should things not go the way you hoped. They always go in the perfect way regardless.

  13. [...] anyway, yes, I find it very helpful to think through the what-if’s. Britt just posted brilliantly about this the other day. When you actually think all the way through the worst cases, it’s [...]

  14. Busy going through an extended version of this right now, and yes, the worst case scenario works best for me too. Unfortunatel I haven’t figured out how to stop the nausea, insomnia, and heart paplitations that go along with it yet. Any suggestions? :)

  15. muskrat says:

    Your advice is good. I also think realizing it does no good to be scared of an uncertain future event is helpful and appeals to my logical side. And there’s tons of Biblical scripture telling us not to worry, be scared, be anxious, etc. Distress is not something that helps us; only eustress does.

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