As you are probably aware us anxious people tend to make negative predictions about how certain situations will turn out. We tend to:
- Overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen or that something will go wrong
- Exaggerate how bad things will be
- Underestimate your ability to deal with things if they don’t go well
- Ignore other factors in the situation which suggest that things will not be as bad as you are predicting
When we jump to such negative conclusions about the future, we also will tend to engage in unhelpful behaviors such as:
- Avoid the situation totally
- Try the situation out but escape when things seem too difficult
- Be overly cautious and engage in safety behaviors
The problem with these strategies is that they prevent us from actually testing out our predictions. Making it very hard for us to ever have a different experience from what we expected, so we just continue to expect the worst.
When I first started on my journey of healing from my anxiety, I learnt a new experiment called Planning Your Behavioral Experiment. I had so much fun playing this game (as I like to call it), that I ended up using it every time I had to do something that I would either normally avoid and try and escape from because I new it would either trigger an anxiety attack or a panic attack.
Now this experiment seems quit technical at the beginning stages when you are learning it, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really flipping easy, completely simple to remember and great fun.
Set Your Prediction
I am going to be using an example of being invited to a BBQ to help explain how this all works. As summer is just around the corner and I am fed up with all the rain we have been having recently.
let us imagine you have been invited to a BBQ and your negative prediction is:
“I will have a terrible time, no-one will speak to me, I will feel like a total fool.”
Our usual response may be to either avoid the BBQ altogether, or to attend but to leave as soon as you feel uncomfortable, or to stand in the corner and speak only to one person you already know. This may help us reduce your discomfort in the short term, but it also contributes to the conditioning of our negative predictions.
What could have been an alternative way to handle the BBQ situation described above?
Plan Your Experiment
- Be clear about the purpose of the experiment – the point is to test out our negative predictions and help us to develop a more realistic and/or balanced predictions.
- What is the thought or belief that you are trying to test? Rate how strongly you believe this prediction (0-100)
- I will have a terrible time at the BBQ. Even if I try to talk to people, no-one will talk to me. (90)
- What is an alternative prediction or belief? Rate how strongly you believe this alternative (0-100)
- I will find at least one person to talk to and will have an ok time. (10)
- Design the actual experiment – what will you do to test your prediction, when will you do it, how long will it take, and with whom? Try to be as specific as possible. There are no boundaries to how creative you can be, and it is ok to ask for help.
- I will go to the BBQ at 8 pm, alone, and will stay for at least one hour. I will try to make conversation with at least three people, one that I did not know already. I will only drink one glass of wine.
- Make sure you set your experiment at an appropriate level. It is best to start simply and increase the challenge step-by-step. Identify likely problems and how to deal with them.
- There might not be anyone I know at the BBQ. But I will at least know the host and I can ask to be introduced to some other people.
Evaluate Your Experiment
- Carry out your experiment as planned. Remember to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Write down what happened, what did you observe? Consider the evidence for and against your original prediction. What did this say about your negative prediction.
- I felt quite nervous at first and wanted to leave. I used breathing to calm myself. The host was friendly and seemed happy to talk to me, and I also spoke to Kelly, who I hadn’t seen in some time. Kelly introduced me to her partner Jim and we had a good chat about travel. At one point I worried I had said something stupid, but Jim didn’t seem to notice so worry passed.
- What have you learned?
- I am capable of making conversation and enjoying myself in a casual social situation.
- Rate how strongly you now believe in your original prediction and the alternative (0-100)
- I will have a terrible time at the BBQ. Even if I try to talk to people, no-one will talk to me. (10) I will find at least one person to talk to and will have an ok time. (80)
I love this simple strategy or tool that you can pull out of your tool box at any time. I personally love it, because although in reality what I am doing is re-framing my mind, I am also fooling my mind that all I am doing is playing a very simple game.
Give it a try and let me know how you get on. What situation where you facing head on that normally you would avoid but you played this game or experiment instead to find out if you really where right predicting the worse case scenario.
I am really looking forward to reading your comments below.