How fear setting can help with anxiety

I read about fear setting in Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week. In it, Ferris explains that imagined fears are often as debilitating as genuine danger, and the way that we perceive fear can change significantly if we can work out ways to prevent or control the outcome. By setting your fears down on paper and working out what the actual results would be if those fears came to pass, you can gradually develop a stronger sense of what is a good/bad choice.

For Ferris, this is a way to make choices – if you define what you’re afraid of, he says, then you’re in a better position to make informed choices based on risk and reward. He essentially uses fear setting as a way to demonstrate to himself the importance of continual movement, because often the paralysis that follows the fear is as harmful as the potential consequences of actions.

While Ferris uses fear setting to make choices*, I use it to manage my anxiety.

As we’ve discussed in other blog posts, I have a history of mental illness. Particularly anxiety and depression. It is really easy for me to get caught in a spiral of all the things that can go wrong in life. It’s even easier to visualise and exaggerate my anxieties, convince myself that they’re going to become reality, and panic.

Fear setting has helped me by a) giving me space to wallow in my anxieties, as opposed to trying to ignore them (which rarely helps because telling an anxious person to stop being anxious is like telling someone with chronic diarrhoea to stop shitting), and b) it helps me come up with strategies to deal with the impossibly bad scenarios if they come true.

Having strategies to fall back on in the event that my worst fears indeed come to pass is SUPER helpful. It calms my anxious mind to know that there’s a plan in place if the worst happens. It’s why I’ve worked so hard to cultivate my fears list over the last few years, carefully adding new information as it comes up as well as new fears as they develop.

Are you anxious? Do you need to quiet your brain in order to get some rest at night? Because if you do, then this might help you too.

Start with a table in word (or on a piece of paper if you’re old school). Add three columns for ‘Define the fear’, ‘Prevent’, and ‘Repair’.

The ‘Define the fear’ stage is the most important one because this is the point where you decide what it is that you’re actually afraid of. Are you afraid of the zombie apocalypse, for example, because there is a real, demonstrable threat of death? Or are you worried that you won’t know how to survive without technology and modern medicine? Are you concerned about how you would protect your loved ones? Are you concerned that you won’t make any new friends once half the human population has been infected?

These are all very real concerns, but drilling down to what definitely scares you about any situation will help guide the rest of the exercise. If you’re afraid of the zombie apocalypse because you don’t know how to survive, then that’s going to need a completely different plan of action than if you’re afraid of the apocalypse because you fear isolation.

Once you’ve drilled down to the main cause of the fear, the next stages are pretty self-explanatory. You come up with a plan to prevent the bad thing from happening OR you come up with a plan for what to do if the bad thing does happen. There are some things that you can never control, and it helps to confront that right from the start. But you’d be surprised at what steps you actually can take to prevent or mitigate a lot of the things causing you anxiety.

If you’re stuck for what to do – ask! Go online and google what people have done in similar situations. Look for help in forums. Ask a mentor or an advisor or even a lawyer. There are dozens of people who have planned for the zombie apocalypse. Use their plans as inspiration for yours.

I imagine a lot of people have either lived through your worst fears or thought about what they would do if they did. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You don’t need to face these fears alone.

Give fear setting a try. Let me know how you go.

*If you’d like to see how Ferris uses the fear setting tool to make choices, there are of breakdowns here, here, and here.

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