How to Use Hypothesis Testing to Overcome Anxiety

A safe way to test the worst-case scenario.

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

My anxiety always starts the same way: I have a stray thought, which quickly develops into an issue, then snowballs into a problem, then becomes a full-blown catastrophic meltdown. I’ve been brought to tears because of this, crying in front of my bemused boyfriend who just doesn’t understand how I can spiral so quickly, with nothing but my own brain working against me.

For example, I’ll think about reaching out to a friend I haven’t seen in a while. I’ll consider what we said last time we spoke. My brain will seize on something awkward I said at the time, and tell me that’s the reason we haven’t spoken since — because this person hates me. Then I’ll be fully and irrationally convinced that I have no future, my friends all secretly despise me, and I’m destined to spend my life alone.

The consequences of these anxious thoughts mean I delay starting things. I don’t go to parties. I’m afraid to form new friendships and afraid to mess up existing ones. It’s a paralyzer that stops me from living my best life. And I’m not alone.

Catastrophic thinking is a common reaction to anxieties of any kind: folks start considering any anxiety-inducing thing which leads them to go down the path of the worst-case scenario, even if it’s incredibly illogical.

This is the thing — even though we can recognize when our feelings are illogical, we don’t stop feeling them. But hypothesis testing gives us a way to get back our control.

How to Hypothesis-Test Your Way Out of Anxiety

Cognitive behavioral therapy has had so many advances in the psychology field. One of the longest-standing treatments to anxiety has been to intentionally expose yourself to your phobia, under your controlled circumstances. You then see what happens and prove to yourself it’s not as bad as you might have expected.

Here’s how it works: notice when you have an anxious spiral and identify your worst-case scenario. Maybe you’re afraid to speak up at a meeting in case you stutter and that leads to you getting fired, or maybe you’re afraid to say hi to the person at the bus stop because you’ll make a fool out of yourself and be openly mocked.

These are anxious thoughts! You can spot them and realize what’s happening, which is the first step to hypothesis testing.

Next, put your worst-case scenario into practice. Expose yourself to the consequences of that thing you’re so afraid to try. What happens if you’re five minutes late to work? What if you just say “hi” to that person at the grocery store? What if you simply agree to something someone else says at that meeting?

Remember it’s OK to be anxious — in fact, you’re actively encouraging that feeling in your own environment. You can acknowledge the feeling without trying to tamp it down.

You can even take it a step further and put into practice exactly what you think might happen. Watch how people react. Stutter intentionally, or you can test what happens when you say something really strange to an acquaintance. Do they hate and despise you, as you feared, or — as is way more likely — are they sympathetic, or not even notice?

Humans are prone to a spotlight effect when thinking about our own actions — this just means we think other folks care as much about our actions as we do when in reality most people are firmly entrenched in their own minds.

And you’ve done it! You’ve faced your fears, you’ve seen what happens when you put your anxiety to the test, and you know that the worst-case scenario is not as bad as you might have thought.

Replace the post-match analysis.

Most anxious people, myself included, have a nasty tendency of going over every single interaction we’ve had to pick it apart for mistakes. Then we beat ourselves up for what we did wrong.

Instead of doing this, which helps nothing and contributes to our fear for next time, replace it with a simple congratulations. It might feel fake, but you have to recognize that you deserve it: you faced your fears. Try to remember you deserve congratulations for doing something really tough. How many people avoid their fears, and how many actually face their fears?

No matter how ridiculous you may think your anxiety is, the feelings it generates are very real. Addressing and overcoming them is something worthy of praise.

There’s pressure on all of us for our first try to be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be perfect — you just have to keep trying to be better. Encourage yourself for making small steps, and don’t expect perfection right on your first try.

Exposing yourself to the worst-case scenario can help you overcome anxiety.

Hypothesis testing can help you stop your anxiety right in its tracks. Next time you notice you’re beginning to spiral, identify it, catch it, and recognize what you’re really afraid of happening. After all, we’re not afraid of heights — we’re afraid of falling. Likewise, we’re not afraid of meetings, we’re actually afraid of messing up at meetings, or being perceived as ridiculous.

Think through what the worst thing could be to happen as a result of messing up, and tets it out on a small scale. What happens? How do people react? You can even mess up intentionally to really drive the point that mistakes are OK, people are forgiving, and that thing you’re so afraid of is not going to be as bad as you think it is.

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