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When The Going Gets Tough, Consider The Worst Case Scenario

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It sounds a little crazy, doesn't it? When you're filled with fear and overwhelmed with stress, the last thing you want to do is think about how it can get worse.

Or, is it?

I was having a chat with a friend not too long ago about a situation they had found themselves in that had them completely overwhelmed with stress. We talked a bit about what they were going to do, and how they'd get through it. My friend seemed a bit hopeless so I asked the question: "What's your worst case scenario?"

My friend looked at me a bit dumb-founded at first but then her eyes went wide and she blurted out, "I might fail!"

I pushed back on this, "Okay, so what will happen if you fail?"

After a few moments of contemplation, her response was: "I might disappoint people... and lose friends... and my family might not like that I wasted money on this endeavour and what if I can't afford to pay for my mortgage? I might lose my house!"

I grabbed my friend's hand and said, "Sure, all of that might happen but would you still be okay after all of that? Would you still have family or friends who would love and support you? Will you still have your own sense of self and ingenuity? You're super resourceful! Could you come up with another plan or idea or way forward to get yourself out of whatever mess you find yourself in?"

She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes, and said, "Yes, I suppose I'd be okay in the end."

We spent the remainder of our conversation focused on what she could do to improve her situation while setting aside the idea that she could fail. We brought to the surface the scary, fear-filled parts, had a look at them and discovered that the monster in the closet wasn't so terrifying after all.

I've run through this "worst case scenario" exercise a lot. I use it whenever I'm bumping up against any amount of stress. It usually looks like this:

If "X" happens, I might lose a client.
If I lose a client, I will have less income.
If I have less income, I may need to get a job.
If I can't get a job, I may not be able to afford rent.
If I can't afford rent, I may need to move in with my parents.
People will view me as a failure.
Am I still okay?
Am I still me with the same heart and brains?
Do I still have family and friends who love me?
Can I come up with another idea once I'm safe to get me out of this spot?
OK. I'm OK. I'll be OK no matter what.

Sometimes when we dissect the thing we're the most afraid of, we realize it's actually not all that bad. Hardships can become moments of greatness when you're forced to get creative, think of a solution and overcome difficult situations.

There are a few reasons that this works well for most people:

  1. It allows you to come back to present time - when we feel fear, it's often because we're letting our brain run rampant with all of the possible downsides to our situation. By thinking about the worst case scenario and familiarizing yourself with it, you bring yourself back to present time.
  2. It provides you with the space needed to question your thoughts and consider the odds - when we take a look at the things we're most concerned about, we can often rationalize away many of our fears by asking ourselves, "What are the odds that the thing I'm worried about will happen?" You can also dissect your thoughts further with a few simple questions.
  3. Finally, it allows you to move forward knowing that even if the worst thing happens, you'll still be okay - for most of us, we just want to know that the next step we take isn't going to send us plummeting into the depths of the Earth. When we take a look at the worst that can happen, it can often make that next step a little easier.

At the end of the day, we're all trying to keep ourselves safe and our body's stress response is a fantastic navigational tool. However, it's worth taking a look at the stress to see if it's grounded in reality, if the worst case scenario is really a worst case scenario and what we can do, even when faced with hardship, to create solutions.

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