Ch 2. Worry: Sharks in the Swimming Pool ☆

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.

Chris was an ambitious computer consultant haunted by a peculiar anxiety—his fear that nuts and bolts, or other components of airplanes, would fall on his head, possibly killing him. If he heard the sound of an aircraft while walking outside, he would consider taking shelter. He felt anxious even if the plane were not directly overhead—for he speculated that falling objects might travel some lateral distance if they were thrown to the side by the airplane turning or by a powerful wind.

This is one of a long list of some of my clients’ far-fetched fears. Here are a few other examples:

  • An elevator inspector was obsessed with the thought that he might suddenly decide to become a woman and have a sex-change operation—though he never had felt such a desire, and in his sexual preferences and behavior he was an entirely typical heterosexual male.

  • A lawyer was afraid that she might inadvertently impregnate herself by touching microscopic deposits of semen on objects, such as a doorknob, and then accidentally touching herself while in the bathroom.

  • A middle-aged, married accountant who had sent an angry but nonthreatening memo to a former boss, began to worry that the boss might sue her, causing her to lose her house and all her savings and become a bag lady.

  • A timid lady, who would never hurt a fly, always avoided listening to news broadcasts and became panicky if she overheard part of such a broadcast, because she was afraid that she might hear of some atrocity such as a mass killing and be uncontrollably impelled to copy it.

  • A young music teacher was afraid to go into a public swimming pool in a Midwestern city because there might be sharks there, which might eat him, or at the very least bite off one of his feet. An intelligent person, he readily admitted that sharks did not regularly inhabit swimming pools. He knew that it would be difficult to smuggle a live shark into such a pool; that if there were a shark there, he ought to be able to see it; and that any self-respecting shark would no doubt be so bothered by the chlorine it would not lie quietly in wait at the bottom of the pool. Nonetheless, he described himself as petrified by the thought that such a thing might happen, so that he had given up his twice-weekly swim. For my part, I conceded that I could not conclusively prove that he would never meet a shark in a swimming pool!

Such absurd fears are more common than many of us realize. There is, for instance, a cult magazine titled Shark Fear, and legends about sharks, piranhas, or alligators in the plumbing are rife from Florida to New York City. And although these fears may sound ridiculous to most people, that is no consolation to the individuals who suffer from them.

Here are some other fears which are widely held—I have encountered them all many times—and which cause real pain to millions of people. Consider whether they are any more reasonable than the preposterous fears mentioned above:

  • The fear of being on a high floor of a tall building because one side of the building might abruptly crumble, or you might suddenly feel an irresistible urge to jump through the window.

  • The fear that one will be possessed by an unconquerable urge to do something outrageous and embarrassing in public. For instance, someone sitting in the audience of a theater may suddenly be struck by the thought that he might get up from his seat, rush to the front, and jump onto the stage with the actors. He may then sit there in a cold sweat, not enjoying the play, because of his worry that he may at any moment uncontrollably do this outrageous thing that he does not in the least want to do.

  • The fear that one will die while asleep. Someone may notice that his heartbeat slows down as he becomes drowsy, and he may then start worrying that it will stop altogether if he falls asleep.

  • The fear of killing or mutilating someone close to you. Mothers sometimes experience a panicky fear that they will plunge a knife into their child, and husbands sometimes torment themselves with the fear that they will strangle their wives.

These commonplace anxieties are just as unreasonable as the more unusual ones mentioned earlier. We can easily see that they are all fears of something extremely unlikely. This gives a clue to the root of much unnecessary anxiety: a demand that one get an iron-clad, sure-fire, one-hundred-percent guarantee that something unpleasant absolutely will not occur.

With unlikely events, people are more influenced by a possibility that catches their imagination in some dramatic, spectacular way, rather than by the objective likelihood that it will occur. For instance, you often hear people argue against moving to California because they might die in an earthquake, whereas the death toll from cold weather—not to mention tornados and thunderstorms—east of the Rockies hugely exceeds fatalities from earthquakes in the West. Or some people will be nervous about flying because of the possibility of a fatal plane crash, but driving to the airport is objectively more dangerous.

Is This Blood That I See Before Me?

It was a blustery, overcast autumn day. At 11:55 A.M., Jerzy rushed out of his office and dashed to his regular restaurant. When he arrived, he was relieved to see that he had indeed got there ahead of the long line that formed every day around noon. He settled into his usual seat at a corner table, began to read his newspaper, and absentmindedly ordered his lunch. When the meal arrived, he picked up his fork—and froze.

Jerzy had spotted something amid the green of the broccoli and the orange of the yams—a tiny spot of crimson. “What if it’s blood?” he thought. “And what if it’s HIV-positive?” Jerzy was seized by the thought that he might get AIDS. He fled the restaurant, leaving his plate untouched, and wouldn’t go back.

In the weeks that followed, Jerzy spent much time worrying about the possibility that he might catch AIDS and began to lose sleep. He stopped eating out alone, and when eating out with close friends, he would ask them to inspect his food and reassure him that there was no blood on it.

It is, of course, millions of times more likely that you will die from food poisoning following a restaurant meal than that you will pick up AIDS that way. But Jerzy never gave a thought to that less sensational, more prosaic possibility.

A Dread of Uncertainty

To some extent, Jerzy’s anxiety resulted from his telling himself, “I MUST not get AIDS.” However, the main anxiety trigger consisted of his demand for certainty: “Since there is a one-in-a-billion chance that I could contract AIDS when dining out, the fates MUST guarantee me a zero-in-a-billion chance.”

Demanding certainty in an uncertain universe leads, paradoxically, to concluding that unlikely dangers are virtually guaranteed to happen. And if you insist on absolute, one-hundred-percent security, you create emotional insecurity for yourself.

For example, the fear of flying often stems from the idea: “I MUST have a guarantee, signed and sealed by the fates, that the plane won’t crash.” Consequently, once someone who fears flying agonizingly drags himself aboard the plane, whenever there’s the slightest turbulence, or the flight attendant frowns, the individual is convinced: “This is it! The plane’s going down!”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths,” says Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. More generally, it’s true that habitual worriers suffer a thousand times more agonies than they would if they stopped worrying about remote possibilities.

Jerzy’s Three Minute Exercise

So it was with Jerzy and his worry about AIDS. He demanded guaranteed immunity, and thus saw AIDS everywhere. We targeted his “need” for certainty in Three Minute Exercises such as this one:

  1. (Activating event): I’m dining out and I see something red in my food. What if it’s AIDS-infected?

  2. (irrational Belief): Life MUST give me an ironclad guarantee that I will not get AIDS by eating this food.

  3. (emotional Consequences): Anxiety.

  4. (Disputing): What is the evidence that life MUST give me an ironclad guarantee that I will not contract AIDS while eating out?

  5. (Effective new thinking): It would be lovely if I could get guarantees in life, but none exists. Certainty is a figment of my imagination, and besides, I don’t HAVE TO be absolutely certain of anything. The probability is high that I will never contract AIDS. There are (probably) only probabilities, and I can live happily with them as long as I refuse to demand more. Oh yes, if there were any certainty (which there isn’t), it would be the certainty that as long as I insist on guarantees, I’m doomed to keep making myself anxious.

    It’s a nuisance not knowing for sure that I won’t contract AIDS, but no evidence demonstrates that life MUST not give me such inconvenience. Life has much uncertainty. Too bad! It’s never the doubt itself, but rather my “awfulizing” about it, that worries me.

  6. (new Feeling): Concern, rather than anxiety, about eating out.

Tony’s Worries

Tony, 25, was tall and thin with curly dark hair and an olive complexion. His problem was escalating, yet he joked wryly about it, giving me a variant of a standard witticism I have heard from dozens of clients: “After years of false starts and immature attempts,” he announced, with mock seriousness, “I’ve now completely mastered the art of worrying!”

Tony had spent six months in traditional therapy. “It helped me understand myself better, or so I naively supposed at the time. I tried to ignore the fact that the whole time I was getting worse.” He terminated therapy when it came to him one day that he could end up single-handedly putting his psychoanalyst’s kid through college. When Tony’s girlfriend landed a job with a prestigious law firm in San Francisco, they left New York. Now Tony felt it was again time to face his problem, so he returned to therapy.

Tony gave me a brief history of his worries:

“I can remember worrying about making errors when I was on the Little League baseball team. And then worrying when I was in high school, before a test and during a test—and, come to think of it, until I got my grade.

“I always thought that I worried more than almost everyone, worried about sillier things, and dealt with worrying worse than most people. I even worried about the fact that I was such a worrier.”

Tony was employed as a bank loan officer, a job he considered stressful. Every morning, the day ahead loomed like an ordeal about to unfold.

“When I start a new project at work, tackle a difficult problem, or when I have a ton of work to do, I worry. And I worry about learning new skills and about doing so poorly that I would lose my job. Overall, it gets more stressful as I move up the corporate ladder.

“There are times work isn’t so bad, like when I have something that’s not too challenging, or don’t have time pressure. But generally, my worrying leads me to dislike my job. Sometimes I’m up all night worrying, and then I’m tired the next day and waste time daydreaming at work. I have concentration difficulties. When I do sleep, I sleep poorly. I do badly at work because of my worrying.”

Job Security Worries

“The root of your problem, Tony,” I suggested, “doesn’t lie in your Little League experiences, nor in your promotions at work, nor in your shaky financial situation should you lose your job. Rather, it lies in your demandingness—your ‘musts,’ your ‘have tos,’ your ‘got tos’ about your goals.”

I explained to Tony how “musty” thinking generates anxiety. I described the three types of demands: demands on oneself, demands on others, and demands on the universe.

“It’s clear to me what your major ‘musts’ are. Would you care to hazard a guess?”

“Let’s see, probably must number three: a demand on my situation—a demand on the universe. ‘Concentrating MUST not be so difficult,’ ‘Sleep SHOULD come easily,’ ‘My job MUST last forever’?”

“Exactly! And why MUST your job last forever?”

“Because if I lose my job, I’m royally screwed. I’ll never get such a good job. I’ve worked my way up. I’ll have to start all over again, at square one!”

Notice that Tony’s fear that he would lose his job was not a “silly fear” like the ones that started this chapter. Employees at all levels, even dependable, hardworking employees, do sometimes lose their jobs. But when asked why this was terrible, Tony responded in exaggerated, melodramatic terms about the consequences of losing his job.

“Let’s suppose that this is the case—although it’s unlikely—that you’d be starting at square one, even with your experience. We could certainly list fifteen or twenty disadvantages of your getting fired. But since everyone faces setbacks in life, why MUST you not?”

“When you put it that way, I admit that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lost my job. It would be unwelcome, but not a calamity. I suppose I’d better join the human race and face the sad fact that I could experience setbacks in my life, just like everyone else.”

To reinforce this, Tony and I made a list of the reasons why his belief that his job MUST last forever is false. Here’s what he wrote:

Reasons why “My job MUST last forever” is false:

  1. If I lose my job, I lose it! Reality is reality, not the way I think it has “got to” be.

  2. Although I keenly prefer not to lose my job, a preference does not equal a “got to.”

  3. Although I would have extra financial and employment hassles if I lost my job, that’s all I would have—hassles, not horrors.

  4. It could be nice to have a respite from work, which would provide a longed-for break to visit my brother in Italy.

  5. I have savings I could live on for a while. I would be able to take my time and do a really excellent job of finding the best job available.

  6. Losing my job could give me just the push that I have been lacking to take a chance on my dream—starting my own business as a computer consultant.

  7. Losing my job would give me a golden opportunity to practice accepting misfortunes, rather than needlessly worrying about them.

  8. I would see, concretely, that even the worst-case scenario is not as bad as I had anticipated.

  9. If I lose my job, this would be a bad situation, but it would not make me a bad or worthless person.

  10. I could be more money-conscious, for example, move into a smaller apartment, eat at home more, and buy a new car in five years rather than immediately. This would mean some deprivation, but I’ve survived deprivation before, and I will survive it in the future.

  11. The simple fact of losing my job, by itself, can never disturb me. Only my bellyaching about it can do that.

  12. Even if I never get a job as well-paying as my current one, I could accept that and still considerably enjoy life, although I could enjoy it even more with a better salary.

  13. Losing my job would provide an opportunity to eventually get a position that may have certain advantages over this one: a more supportive boss, more friendly co-workers, less pressure, more interesting work, shorter commute times, less crowded work space, or better pay.

  14. Pressuring myself not to get fired will not help me keep my job. Moreover, it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more I demand this, the more stressed and distracted I get, and the worse I perform.

  15. In the larger sense, all jobs are temporary. Career changes, unemployment, and lost jobs are part of life.

  16. If I start at “square one” at a new job, I could work my way up the ladder as I’ve done before.

  17. Everyone has significant discomforts, inconveniences, and hassles in life. This is part of the human condition. No reason exists why I have “got to” be exempt.

  18. It could actually be a relief not to be so focused on getting promotions and moving up the corporate ladder.

Tony read this list into a tape recorder. He listened to the tape at home and in his car. He found this daily reinforcement surprisingly effective in eroding his “got tos” and thereby drastically reducing his anxiety.

Anxiety, Fear, and Worry

Fear and anxiety are basically the same emotion. We use these two words in subtly different ways. We are more likely to call the emotion “anxiety” if the thing feared seems vague or uncertain, but it’s the same animal.

Worry is the practice of anxiously pondering something, usually repeatedly and at length. So, if you feel a twinge of panic when called upon to make a speech, that’s anxiety, but not worry. If, on the other hand, you keep anxiously thinking about the speech you are scheduled to make next week, that’s both anxiety and worry.

Worry is anxious pondering; worry is a package made up of both pondering and anxiety. Or, in the form of an equation:

Worry = Pondering + Anxiety

Popular fallacies about worry mostly arise because people do not distinguish between pure pondering without anxiety, and pondering with added anxiety. People may say, “Don’t worry about that,” when what they really mean is, “Don’t concern yourself with that; don’t give it another thought.” This way of speaking is in itself harmless, of course, but mistakes arise when people believe that thinking hard about a problem has to be an anxious experience.

A chess grandmaster may spend hours pondering a position, trying to find the best move, but there is no reason why he need feel anxious about it, and he is more likely to analyze the position better if he is free of anxiety. The same applies to Proust writing a great novel or Beethoven writing one of his symphonies.

People will often say that worry is useless, and that it’s best to stop worrying, by which they usually mean, stop thinking about the problem. However, pondering some problem may not be useless—one may come up with an idea that would solve or alleviate it.

If you have an important interview tomorrow, you may worry about it, that is think anxiously about it. And this may do you some good in the interview—research shows that people do better on such occasions if they rehearse them in their minds beforehand. Yet the good that comes from such worrying comes despite the anxiety, not because of it. Merely thinking about the interview, without feeling anxious about it, will do just as much good and probably more. People who think anxiously about such things usually think far less efficiently than those who think non-anxiously.

Contrary to the usual view, it’s possible to feel keenly concerned about something without feeling in the least anxious about it. Ted and Timothy are great buddies and have a vigorous, friendly rivalry at table tennis, which gives them much enjoyment. They are each keenly determined to win, and excited and exhilarated whether they win or lose, though also distinctly disappointed if they lose. There is no anxiety in their concern to win. They don’t fear losing, though they decidedly prefer not to lose.

This kind of example refutes the popular but mistaken view that some anxiety is helpful because we need adrenaline to give us extra speed or concentration in moments of crisis. Extra adrenaline can be helpful in some situations, but we can have the extra adrenaline without any fear or anxiety, as Ted and Timothy do during table tennis, or as people often do during sex.

True, worriers do often spend a lot of time thinking uselessly about their problems, their thoughts going round and round in a repeating groove to no effect. But if they would learn to think about their problems without anxiety, they would then spontaneously stop thinking excessively about those problems where further thought was obviously pointless.

How can we learn to think about problems without anxiety? The anxiety—the fear—always comes from our demands, our “musts.” The way you can stop worrying and yet continue to think hard about a problem is to challenge and uproot your “musts.” When you find yourself worrying about some situation, it’s not the situation, by itself, that is generating your anxiety. It’s your “musts” that make you anxious, and tackling your “musts” is the best way to reduce your anxiety.