It turns out that often, especially if we're anxious, we overestimate the importance of stakes (the consequences of something happening) over the importance of odds (the likelihood that it will happen.)
Trap #8: You worry about the stakes instead of understanding the odds
Why do we fear plane flights more than we fear the drive to the airport? How do movies about sharks strike panic when our medication's list of possible side effects does not?
Why are we sometimes totally irrational about what we choose to expend our worries on?
It turns out that often, especially if we're anxious, we overestimate the importance of stakes (the consequences of something happening) over the importance of odds (the likelihood that it will happen.) We give the stakes the power to hijack our minds, blindsiding ourselves by imagining the worst-case scenario. We catastrophize and can't think clearly, because the potential outcome — even if it's a one in a billion chance — is so bad.
Someone who develops a fear of flying knows rationally that the odds of a crash are extremely low. But because the stakes are so high — if your plane actually crashes, you will likely get more than a scrape on your elbow — your trapped brain ignores the odds and gets overruled by the terrifying visualization of the high stakes. And so even a minuscule chance of a crash (extremely low odds) feels like too much, and is unacceptable and distressing. In this mode, we want absolute certainty that the stakes can never, ever occur. We want absolute 0% odds, not 0.00000000001%. And soon we start wanting to avoid any risk whatsoever. (It's like back-door all-or-none thinking, with a side of catastrophizing.)
But all life comes with risk. If you are known to be an anxious person, you may feel like you need a guarantee that you will be "safe" in doing the things you fear: asking for a raise, revealing your feelings to a romantic partner, leaving your job for a new one, going to that party by yourself.
But there is no guarantee.
Just like there's no guarantee — no absolute certainty — that I won't spend the rest of the days of this course sending you pictures of chimpanzees in space suits.
But you know what? That's all okay. Because the odds are very, very low. And sometimes we have to let ourselves take a deep breath and realize that that is more than good enough.
Think of something (functional) you've been wanting to do that you are afraid of. Are you over-investing your energy into worrying about stakes at the expense of being realistic about the odds? Are you seeking certainty when it can never be guaranteed?
Next time you feel anxiety about its risk, tell yourself this: "My worry comes from my anxious voice, not because I am realistically in danger." "My anxiety is sending false messages and not an accurate representation of reality." "My gut feelings, when I'm anxious, are often bluffing."
Up next: How to balance pleasure and meaning.
In the meantime, if you have questions or news about your progress in this challenge, I host a live weekly anonymous chat online on Tuesdays at 1 PM EST here. Feel free to drop in! You can also find me on Facebook. —Dr. Andrea Bonior
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