In this time of heightened fear and anxiety, all of us need to work on strategies for managing fear. The usual way most people try to manage fear is by repression or distraction, but we all know that those “strategies” just let the fears fester and come sneaking back later.
How can we manage our fears in a constructive way that acknowledges their reality without increasing their power? An exercise that we have used with some success over the years involves taking time to sit down and really focus on the fear. We call this “prescribed worry” because it is a determined choice to look closely at what is worrying us and why.
Step 1: Write down all your worries, one sheet for each one. This alone can be enlightening, as you realize that they are not infinite, but actually quite specific.
Step 2: For each worry, write down the “worst case scenario” – how will things be if the thing I fear comes to pass in the worst possible way?
Step 3: For each worry, write down some possible actions you could take that would reduce the possible feared outcome, or mitigate its effects. Then consider the costs and benefits of each action. What are the possible costs of doing nothing? Of taking action to prevent the negative outcome? What are the benefits of doing nothing? Of taking action?
Getting back in control
Prescribed worry lets us put our fears in perspective. We can categorize them and analyze them. Writing engages a more rational, less emotional part of the brain, and can show clearly what is worth worrying about and what is not. It also gives a written record that we can come back to at a later time to see what has changed and what is remaining constant.
Set a schedule and stick to it
The big advantage of prescribed worry is that you set times when you will consider scary stuff, and the rest of the time, if worries come to mind, you can just say “make an appointment” and set them aside until it’s time to sit down and have a look. It may not seem like a happy way to spend an hour or two, but as the habit is developed over time, the worries stop controlling you, and you can get on with your life.
For another view of prescribed worry, check out this TED talk by Tim Ferriss, who lives with bipolar and who has a lot to say about how to live with fear, worry and depression.