Mental Health

‘What’s The Worst That Could Happen?’ Used To Help My Anxiety. Not Anymore.

I use to coach myself through big and small life events with this simple phrase. What do I do now that it doesn’t work anymore?

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For as long as I can remember, my anxiety management has been a full-time job. I have cultivated an arsenal of tools over the years including Lexapro, breathing techniques, and biweekly therapy sessions. My favorite tool, one my therapist taught me years ago, is to ask myself a simple question: What is the worst case scenario?

She offered me this suggestion when I was overly anxious about my wedding day. I was worried about everyone looking at me, interacting with one another, seating plans, event executions, etc. Asking myself this question was very helpful because the answer was always something only mildly problematic and temporary. In these worst case scenarios, I felt embarrassed or someone was mad for the night. The answer was always something I could survive, and that was helpful to lower my anxiety and calm me down.

This strategy carried me through numerous big life changes, hectic holidays, and troubles with my kids. It calmed me during both big and small life events and worries. But today, it feels significantly less helpful. Because in 2022, with the stakes high and my anxiety on fire, worst case scenarios feel like just that — like the literal worst case scenario. It feels like the impossible is now possible, and what I actually fear is no longer trivial or temporary, but rather something impossibly devastating.

I worry about the pandemic, and its long-term physical and emotional effects. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined a world where I was protecting myself, my unborn baby, and my three small kids from a deadly, wild-spreading virus. Isolating for long stretches of time, fearful of the impact contraction would have on my immediate and extended family. Making serious decisions about newly introduced vaccines and medications for the little people I love most, who rely on me to keep them safe.

And now, two years in, having experienced COVID-19 for the first time just a few months ago, I worry about the possibility of future health complications associated with the virus, since so much is still unknown. So when I turn to my normal practice — asking myself, in an attempt to de-escalate, what is the worst case scenario?for two years, that answer has been death. My death or that of my children, my husband, my parents. That would be the worst case scenario. And that leaves me paralyzed with fear.

I worry about school shootings. This week, parents sent their children off to Robb Elementary School in Texas and were never able to see them again. I received emails from our school principal and superintendent reviewing safety protocols and lockdown drill procedures. So when I round the circle of the drop off line and my stomach turns — when I quickly check in with myself and ask, what is the worst case scenario here? — the answer is that my 6 and 8-year-old could be killed with a legally obtained gun during fucking circle time. How the hell am I supposed to breathe my way through that?

I worry about the political misdirection of our country. About human rights violations, racism, homophobia, and police brutality. Each worry is validated by recent and horrible violence and legislation. People are being killed and individual rights are being stripped away. Worst case scenario: my daughters will be unable to make decisions about their own bodies. I am no longer worrying about inconsequential happenings. I am crippled with worry about my children’s mental and physical safety.

So I guess it’s time to get some heavier-hitting tools for my tool box, now that my longstanding strategy is no longer effective. Maybe the new solution does not lie in overthinking possible outcomes, but rather in a steadying hope that maybe I am stronger than I think I am, because I have witnessed humans survive the unthinkable. So I vow to get active.

Samm Burnham Davidson is an ex-lawyer mom of four who swears a lot. She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.