How do we know the sky ISN’T falling?
Anxiety is tricky.
At a certain level, anxiety is a good thing–it’s a healthy byproduct of being able to simulate future events and possible outcomes, and a desire to avoid negative outcomes. Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it is miscalibrated and identifies unlikely future events as likely, mild negative outcomes as catastrophic, or neutral situations as dangerous.
Treating anxiety sometimes involves re-calibrating it. When a fear is particularly irrational it’s easier to recalibrate than one that has a seed of rationality. “There’s a monster under my bed,” can be challenged with, “Monsters aren’t real.” “There’s someone in my house,” is a lot harder to challenge because no matter how unlikely it is that someone has broken into your home, it’s not impossible. The fact that it COULD happen makes it much harder to refute and challenge the fear.
So, how do you handle it when the fear could be real? You COULD get into a car accident. You COULD have a heart attack. Your parents COULD be lying about loving you. A random piece of space debris COULD hit you on the head when you leave your front door.
One skill could be looking for evidence of positive outcomes. Your parents PROBABLY love you, because look at all they do for you. You are PROBABLY not going to get into a car accident, look at how safe a driver you are and you’ve never been in an accident before. You’re PROBABLY not going to have a heart attack, you’re in good health and have no other symptoms.
Anxiety can be tenacious, so it won’t evaporate when confronted with “probably”, but it gives you a fighting chance to challenge it. If we can push “WILL happen” to “COULD happen” to “PROBABLY WON’T happen,” we are effectively giving ourselves permission to discount the fear. It allows us to not feel reckless or foolish for ignoring the possible negative outcome.
Another skill is to try and not let our thoughts go deeply down the path anxiety suggests to us. Imagine being on a boat in the ocean, looking out over the waves. If you think about how deep the water is, how it goes down miles and miles before you reach the bottom…. If you think about how those depths could be filled with animal life, predators and creatures that could harm you easily…. If you imagine how futile it would be to try and survive if you fell into it, how the cold would drain your warmth and the sea could fill your lungs… you’re going to feel scared and anxious.
If, on the other hand, you admire how the sun glints on the waves and how beautiful the color is, you may feel more at peace. If you let your thoughts remain on the surface and resist the draw to go deeper, you can stay in that moment. Even if anxiety is trying to draw you in to worry, what-ifs, and over-thinking, you can give yourself permission to stay on the surface.
Do your parents love you? They COULD be… nope. Don’t go there. My parents love me.
Will you get into a car accident? The other drivers COULD… nope. It’s a nice day for a drive. It’ll be fine.
I’ve seen this pattern of smart kids discovering big questions before they were ready to handle them. They can imagine negative outcomes and are smart enough to know that improbable is not impossible. They realize that there are some questions that have no answers, like, “What if the world isn’t real?”
A twelve year old with existential dread is a bit more common than you’d think. In those cases, there’s no rational chain of logic that will let them challenge the fear. How can you prove that the world is real and not some dream or simulation? You can’t.
Instead, I sometimes try to go the “stay on the surface” route. If there’s no answer, there’s no point in worrying about the question. We just learn to not go there–to give ourselves permission to ignore and not go deeply into the topic.
What if the world isn’t real?
Well, it probably is, so let’s not go there.