Subscribe to the weekly “audio edition” via iTunes

What if I get the shakes in studio class?

What if I mess up this gig, and don’t get invited back?

What if I started getting serious too late? What if things don’t work out? What if the aggregate total of jelly in the donuts I’m bringing home exceeds TSA’s carry-on limits, and I can’t get through airport security?

It’s pretty easy to get stuck in a cycle of worries and what if’s. And to become increasingly anxious and stressed out as we dwell on thoughts that feel very real and increasingly likely, the longer we think about them.

In reading books about this sort of thing over the years, I always remembered seeing a claim that 90% of the things we worry about never happen.

This makes for a great quote to post on Facebook with a pretty picture – but is there any truth to this number?

Like, is this a real statistic with any actual data or research behind it? Or is it one of those made-up numbers that seems to show up all over the internet, but nobody knows where it came from? Like how it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Or how 73.6% of all statistics are made up.

Because that 90% statistic becomes much less reassuring if there’s no actual data to back it up…

A study of 29 worriers

A recent study (LaFreniere & Newman, 2019) analyzed the worry journals of 29 undergraduate students to determine just how many of their worries actually came true over the course of three weeks.

The participants weren’t formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but all met the full criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder1 as determined by a screening tool known as the GAD-Q-IV (a screening tool isn’t used not to diagnose, but is just to give people a sense of how serious their symptoms might be, and whether they may want to consult with someone about this further).

The Worry Outcome Journal

After being accepted into the study, participants came to the lab, and were trained in one particular psychological strategy for managing worries.

Known as the Worry Outcome Journal, it involves writing down your worries, and tracking them, to see how many actually come true.

The rationale being, “as you pay attention to how upsetting, disrupting, and costly your worries are, and as you see clear evidence in your life that the things you worry about actually do not happen, you will recognize the uselessness of worrying and begin to engage in it less. Without these anxious thoughts in your life, your anxiety should also lessen.”

Recording worries for 10 days

So for 10 days, participants recorded their worries, anytime they felt like it, but 4 times a day at a minimum, when randomly prompted by a text message (once between 8am-noon, again between noon-3pm, between 3-6pm, and one last time between 6-9pm).

Specifically, they recorded:

  1. The worry itself (defined as a specific, testable, anxiety-inducing prediction about the future)
  2. The degree of distress this was causing them, from 1=no distress to 7=severe distress
  3. How much space the worry was taking up. By answering the question “How much time did that worry take up since I first had the worry?”
  4. And finally, two estimates of the likelihood of that particular worry coming true. One estimate being based on their “gut feelings or intuition” – i.e. the “emotional likelihood” of the worry coming true. And the other estimate being the “logical likelihood” of the worry, which the participants arrived at by answering the question “If the most rational person in the world were to give a probability as to how likely this event would come true, what would it be?”

Reviewing worries after the fact

Every evening, they reported if any worries had come true, and if so, whether the outcome was “as bad as, worse than, or better than expected.”

A day after logging their last worry, the participants completed the GAD-Q-IV once more to see if there were any changes to their anxiety over the course of the past 10 days.

And on the 30th day of the study, 20 days after their final day of worry journaling, participants were asked to review each of their logged worries, and note if any of them had come true. And if so, whether they were as bad as, worse than, or better than expected. 

So…how many of their worries actually came true?

What percent of worries came true?

Well, as it turns out, that in-all-likelihood-totally-made-up 90% number isn’t so far off.

On average, 91.39% of participants’ worries did NOT come true (i.e. only 8.61% of their worries DID come true). And for 7 participants – or about one out of every four participants – NONE of their worries came true.

It’s also worth noting that for the few worries that did come true, participants rated about a third of them as having turned out better than expected.

All in all, participants were not great at predicting the likelihood of worries coming true. When they tuned into their gut feeling about things (emotional probability), their average estimate was 62.09% (vs. the actual likelihood of 8.6%). Even when trying to think more logically, their probability estimate was still pretty inflated, at 41.67% (vs. 8.6%).

Ok, so how big a deal is it that their worries didn’t come true? As in, what was the cost of worrying?

The cost of worrying

Time

Well, evidently, worrying takes quite a bit of time. On average, participants found that worrying took up 25.88% of each day’s thinking time. And 43.12% of the two-hour block of time just before they recorded the worry in their journal.

Emotional distress

Perhaps more importantly, worrying had a significant emotional cost. During the early part of treatment, participants reported an average distress rating of 4.51 out of 7 (i.e. a moderate to high level of distress).

Takeaways

So what is the main takeaway here? 

Well, it’s important to note that this is a small-ish sample of just 29 university-aged participants (only 3 of which were men), so it’s not clear how generalizable the results are to everyone. However, it’s the first study to take a rigorous look at the question of how many of our worries actually come true. And I do think it helps to know that it’s probably a far smaller number than we imagine.

But now that we know this, what do we do?

Take action

(From Lifehacker)

It’d be nice if we could wipe out worry and anxiety with an awesome flowchart like the one above, but banishing worry from our thoughts tends not to be so easy.

After all, trying not to think about the things we’re worrying about often makes us think about them even more. And if your anxiety is such that you meet the clinical diagnostic criteria of GAD, though it’s something you can learn to manage, it’s nowhere near as simple as telling someone to just snap out of it and stop worrying because 90% of the things you worry about won’t come true. Here’s a glimpse of what the experience can be like (as well as here, here, here, here, and last but not least, here).

  1. But one thing you could try is the Worry Outcome Journal exercise, just as the participants in this study did. Because when compared with another group of individuals who wrote down more general daily thoughts, the WOJ group experienced a greater decrease in worries over time. There even seems to be an iOS app that approximates the WOJ exercise – the Worry Watch Anxiety Journal (it’s $4, and I have no connection to the developer, FWIW).
  2. Practicing mindfulness – or the ability to shift your mind away from worries about the future, and towards whatever is in your immediate present – can also be a useful tool. Especially since this is a skill that’s relevant to being more present on stage and performing more effectively as well.

And if you need something quick and easy to remember when you feel yourself getting sucked into a worry spiral, the “54321” mindfulness technique is also a good exercise to have in your toolbox:

The gist, is to name 5 things you see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Seems simple, but it does force your mind back to the present, which is almost always a way more calming (and real) place to be than whatever nightmare future your brain was getting you all worked up about.

Footnotes

  1. You can learn more about the formal diagnostic criteria for GAD here.