De-Stress Tip: Playing Out the Worst Case Scenario

Here’s something I do which needlessly raises my stress: I too often ponder the worst case scenario after a situation is out of my control.

For example, I email someone important, and until I’ve heard back from him, I think about the worst case (“He hated it, forwarded it to his three VIP buds and ridiculed me”) or (“He’s not going to respond because he thought the idea was terrible”). This is not helpful since I’ve already sent the email.

While sometimes thinking through the worst case scenario can be helpful in getting us to do things we’d otherwise avoid — what’s the worst thing that can happen by doing karaoke in a club? I get a little embarrassed? I’ll do it! — it’s only helpful before action is taken.

I guess this is part of the larger idea of living in the present. We ought not obsess about the past nor worry excessively about the future. (There’s a difference between prudent planning for the future and counterproductive worrying; just like there’s a difference between learning from the past and “obsessing” about it.) In my email example above, if the worst-case scenario were to happen, best to deal with it then, in that moment.

11 Responses to De-Stress Tip: Playing Out the Worst Case Scenario

  1. Akshay Kapur says:

    A while back, I read an interview with Michael Jordan where he said something similar about worrying.

    In the context of basketball, he described it as not worrying after you let go of the ball when taking a shot or making a pass. Trust in your preparation and concentrate on the next step. Rather than worry, think about where the ball will end up if it misses and get to that spot for another chance.

    This is why Michael Jordan was the triple-double leader for three straight years. Like you said, thinking about the worst-case scenario doesn’t help unless you can act on it and most likely you’ve done all you could anyway to avoid that circumstance.

  2. Jon says:

    Often times people will say that if you didn’t experience this worry or nervousness then you don’t care enough. I think it is valid to worry about emails especially, due to the in-ability to read tone in an email. Also, reflection on the worst case scenario after the fact may lead to further refinement of the initial idea you were communicating.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    This is why I recommend living a “stateless” life. Don’t worry about things you can no longer affect, or hypotheticals you can’t change.

  4. Dan says:

    This is a thoughtful post, Ben.

    Your last paragraph reminded me of a few passages from Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life.” Being a stoic, he had a little different take on things. Basically, he said that the past was the only thing Fortune couldn’t mess with, and that we should make time to turn our minds to it more, as it in essence extended our lives. He said overly preoccupied and worried people weren’t really living because they couldn’t reflect on the past for all their worrying about the future, which may never come.

    I think you might enjoy the book.

  5. Xochitl says:

    Lol, I tend to do that too sometimes, and I hate it. I’m getting better at catching myself at it, and stopping. Life’s too short to obsess. If it’s out of your hands right now, there’s not much point in worrying.

    This might sound corny, but your post put me in mind of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”. I find it works for this kind of thing. You can sub God for whatever term you wish.

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

  6. I can’t remember the last time I saw a quote from Seneca, it might have been in high school Latin.;-)

    The past offers more opportunities to waste psychic energy, consisting as it does of accomplished facts that we can replay ad infinitum, all too often for no gain.

    We can learn from the dead past on reflection, but the future is alive with possibility– even ‘worrying’ about outcomes is a creative act, more likely to lead to real learning by the generation of new ideas.

    Contemplating the past is assimilation– anticipating the future is creation.

  7. vinod says:

    How very true Ben.I can immediately identify myself doing this…

  8. Krishna says:

    Consequences of our actions are indeed critical, especially a sent mail because it’s a spilt word. More so since it is irreversible. The stress you experience is because of that realization and not because you peeped into the past. The best day of your life, the good poetry you read and the awesome game that you played have all been safely lodged in the past. So you shouldn’t shun going back in time altogether. It is a natural occurrence. Let it flow. But worrying about things gone awry is optional.

    That email is already gone, so you can’t do much beyond saying “oops!” Say that, curse the moment and be done. It gives you a valuable lesson in that you wouldn’t let go of stuff when you’re not all done.

    Andy Grove said it’s the paranoid that survive. My take for people who are always anticipating trouble – don’t hurry to worry. If you do, you manage to enjoy many sorrows that never really would happen to you.

    This art of resting the mind and the power of dismissing from it all care and worry is probably one of the secrets of energy in our great men. Not when you are on your way to greatness.

    Till then just keep harking on time zones and tell yourself – don’t worry about the world coming to an end today, it’s already tomorrow in Australia.

  9. In 12-step programs, we learn two things with regard to this:

    1) Learn to “play it forward” before you take the step which you know to be wrong. Afterward, playing it forward is of little value.

    2) Write down your worries. Yes, longhand. There is a process for this when doing a personal inventory, but just writing down on paper, in your own hand, the scenarios you are imagining should be enough to bring clarity and reality to the situation. It’s really easy to look at these scenarios written in your own hand and go, “Okay, that’s just crazy.”

  10. Lindsay says:

    This is something that causes me a lot of stress, since I’m a chronic visualizer.

    Thinking about worst case scenarios before action may help with making decisions. On the flip side, imagining the best case scenario can have a tremendous positive affect. I’m a huge believer in the power of visualization. There have been specific times in my life when vividly imagining success has helped me achieve it.

    Most of us can accomplish more than we think we will. :)

  11. jrandom42 says:

    Absolute worst case? Nuclear missiles will be launched in 5 minutes, with a retaliatory strike in another 25. Everything gets obliterated. Problem and worry eliminated.

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