Anxiety Won the Lottery – Possibility versus Probability
Dr. Aline Strong, C.Psych
Anxious or worrisome thoughts have a particular way of manifesting themselves in our minds. One obvious feature of an anxious thought is its intrusive nature. It is seldom that you hear someone say that they wanted to worry about something. Often, worries appear without us wanting them to. They seem to just pop into our minds and make us feel hostage of their dreadful messages. Sometimes it feels like someone is whispering in our ears all the different things that could go wrong in our lives. But the intrusiveness of worry would not be so bothersome if its message was not so negative. Take a moment to reflect on the content of the worries you may have had recently. Chances are your worries were not only negative but very negative. Common worries I hear from my clients are “everything will be ruined”, “something bad will happen” and “I’m losing my mind.” When clients share these worries with me, they often also share images of their lives being over in a way or another (“I’ll need to be institutionalized” or “I’ll lose all I have”) and the accompanying unsettling feeling of doom inside their chests.
The negativity embedded in our worries can be quite difficult to challenge, as who is to say that the dreadful event anticipated in my mind will not in fact happen? What if I get sick? What if I get fired? What if I get into an accident? These are worries that could happen to all of us. This brings us to the other main feature of worry: it is made up of negative content that could but has not (at least yet) happened. If our worst fear were actually to happen, we would most likely become very busy doing what needs to be done to manage our circumstances, rather then simply worry about them. Worry uses the uncertainties in our lives to generate doubt about our future, and it tricks us into believing that if something is possible then it will probably happen. Worry speaks the language of POSSIBILITY and we tend to confuse that language of POSSIBILITY with the language of PROBABILITY.
One of the analogies I like to give my clients when discussing their anxious thoughts is that of buying a lottery ticket. I ask my clients to think about the time when they bought a lottery ticket or, if they have never bought a lottery ticket, to imagine doing so. I ask them to tell me what they would do once they have the lottery ticket in their hands. The response I get is often something like this: “I don’t’ know…I put the ticket in my purse and forget about it…sometimes I briefly daydream about it…the things I could buy or how I could help my family…and that’s it.” Then I ask them why they would not go about purchasing their dream home or car, or why they would not immediately announce to their family that they are millionaires. Their response is simple: “because I haven’t won it, and I probably won’t.” It is at this time that I ask them to recite to me their worries: “what if my child gets hurt?” “what if my husband gets into a car accident?” “what if I get cancer?” These are all very possible events, but what are the chances? More importantly, what are your chances, given your particular lifestyle, genetics, social interactions, etc.?
We all detect the likelihood of certain events with more accuracy than some other events. Our fears may be to blame for this inconsistency. They lead us to think that what we fear may be more likely to happen. But just because we feel fear about an event or think about that event several times a day, that does not mean that the event will happen. That would be a little superstitious. Feelings, thinking, and reality are all different things, and we can discuss their relationship further at a different time. For now, remember that something being POSSIBLE is not equal to something being PROBABLE.
LESSON OF THE DAY:
Identify some of your worries today and check the likelihood of them happening. Pay attention whether you are reacting to them as if they are possible rather then probable. Also, notice if there are other behaviours that you do regularly that are more likely to cause you trouble (e.g., driving) than some of your worrisome thoughts (e.g., getting seriously ill). Reflect on the logic behind that and think about the deceitful messages anxiety has been giving you.