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Control Your Anxiety with Math

May 30, 2020 George Abitante

Yes, we're going to use a little bit of math on the blog today, but we're going to use it for an unusual task -- controlling anxiety. I can feel your incredulity all the way over here but stick with me for a minute, you can control your anxiety with math.

Anxiety and math actually go hand in hand when we use probability to adjust how anxious we feel. If you're like me, you probably don't control your anxiety much using math. I used to just check how much anxiety I felt about an event or fear I had, and just let that tell me how worried I should feel about it. But as I learned more about math, I realized that the equation I was (unconsciously) using for my anxiety was actually really, really incorrect. So today, we're going to talk through how to use math to calculate your anxiety equation accurately. 

The Anxiety Equation: The Essence of Controlling Anxiety with Math

Usually, when we feel anxiety, our anxiety equations follow the adage "What you see is what you get," except with anxiety it's "What you feel is what will happen." If we want to write this as an equation, it looks something like this: 

               Anxiety Level = Likelihood of Bad Event

If I'm worried about throwing up during a speech, for example, and my anxiety level is at a 6/10, then by our current anxiety equation, the chances of me throwing up during my speech are (you guessed it), 6/10, or 60 percent. When I'm worried about a speech, this feels pretty accurate to me, but if I take a step back, it starts to look a bit suspicious.

Have I ever actually thrown up during a speech? Have I even gagged during a speech? As I look at the data from my life, I start to realize that even though I've given some 10 speeches I was nervous about, I never threw up during one of them. With this realization, it becomes clear that there's another part of this equation that I forgot about -- how often does this event usually occur? Once we incorporate that into our equation, we're left with something like this:

              Anxiety Level x Past Likelihood of Bad Event

=

Future Likelihood of Bad Event

When we feel anxious, we tend to forget the evidence against what we're afraid of. The equation above can help us take that into account by adjusting how likely we think a bad event is based on what's happened in the past.

In the case of my anxiety about throwing up during a speech, once I incorporate the data from earlier in my life, the future likelihood of throwing up during a speech is actually nearly zero. And just like that, the chances of me throwing up during a speech have been shifted from 60 percent to basically zero percent. This doesn't mean my anxiety about the speech has gone away,  but once I've worked through this equation, it becomes easier to see that my anxiety doesn't have to work so hard for this speech. It can go down to a 2/10, or even a 1/10 now that I've checked on how likely it is for me to throw up during a speech. 

Using Your Anxiety Equation to Control Anxiety

This equation can help you control your anxiety in a lot of cases where your anxiety level may make you feel like a bad event is more likely than it actually is. In some cases, though, you may actually be right to feel anxious.

If every time you've gone for a walk on a certain trail, you've been stung by a bee, then you're probably quite likely to be stung again if you walk there. In this case, the anxiety equation would produce a pretty high likelihood of that bad event occurring again. When your anxiety equation does show that something is likely to happen, that's a great signal to plan coping skills for whatever that event may entail.

For example, in my speech case, we know that I've never thrown up, but I do feel nervous and start sweating almost every time before I give a speech. Because of this, my anxiety equation actually produces a pretty high likelihood that I will sweat a lot before my speech. This tells me that instead of adjusting my anxiety (as I would do if the likelihood was low), I should prepare a coping plan for my excessive sweat. In this case, that might mean drinking a glass of ice water in the 30 minutes leading up to my speech. By doing this, I keep my body temperature down and will hopefully sweat less, if at all. 

Regardless of what events exacerbate your anxiety, creating your own anxiety equation can help you control your anxiety. When your anxiety equation produces a small probability, you know that you can let your anxiety decrease a little bit. When your anxiety equation produces a large probability, that's when you know to look for coping tools to use in case that event comes up.

What do you think, does this math equation help you control your anxiety? Please share your experiences below.

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2020, May 30). Control Your Anxiety with Math, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, November 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2020/5/control-your-anxiety-with-math



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

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