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Using Probability to Counter Anxiety and Decrease Emotional Eating

Anxious people tend to lump all their anxieties together—running out of gas on a road trip, their spouse leaving them for someone younger, failing an exam, dying in a plane crash, or losing their wallet. The truth is that all of these things are possible, but each has a different probability. By looking at the likelihood of events that frighten us, we can reduce anxiety, live more comfortably in the world, and reduce emotional eating.

Remember, just because it’s possible for something to happen, does not mean that it will. Stop and think if you confuse or equate possibility with absolute certainty. Do you automatically fear and believe that whatever is causing your worry is a definite? By that, I mean do you take all of your fears seriously and give them equal weight? If so, you will be anxious a great deal of the time. While it is true that anything (bad) can happen to anyone at any time, if we focus on this truth, it will drive us crazy.

Here are some examples of fears and truth. More people die in car accidents than in plane crashes, yet more people fear air travel than driving. More folks stay married than end their marriage and the divorce rate is decreasing, not increasing, but we believe that 50% of marriages end in a parting of ways. More people survive than die of cancer, yet when we think of cancer, we think of death. I understand that many of the things that make you anxious—and cause you to turn to food for comfort—are not in these high- stakes categories. I use these examples to make the point that, in order to reduce anxiety, you need to consider probability.

Most of my clients express more mundane fears than the above with great trepidation and alarm, while my usual reaction is generally that they are quite unlikely to occur.

* They’re afraid that they won’t survive the wrath they incur from others. Really? What’s the likelihood that just because your son’s teacher, your neighbor, or your doctor is angry because you confronted him or her, that something terrible and unbearable will happen to you? Is it probable or an unlikely possibility?

* They’re anxious that if they try to make friends, they’ll be perpetually rejected. What are the odds that everyone you want to make a friend of will spurn you? Is it probable or just an unlikely possibility?

* They’re scared that if they make a mistake on the job, they’ll get fired. What are the chances of this happening from one tiny mistake: low or high? Is it probable or just an unlikely possibility?

Are you starting to catch my drift? It’s true that bad things may befall us, but also true that most are highly unlikely to happen. Being struck by lightning while being out in a kayak during a Sarasota summer storm is cause for anxiety because the probability is higher rather than lower. The odds of everyone disliking you at a Meet Up gathering are slim to none. Next time you’re anxious, modulate your worry by considering the likelihood of the occurrence and see if that doesn’t help reduce your apprehension.

Best, Karen

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