Saturday, May 18, 2013

Anxiety and Probability


In an earlier post, I talked about a practical and simple technique for dealing with anxiety. In this post I'd like to expand on some of those ideas.


For many individuals on the autism spectrum, anxiety is a constant presence. I find it can be very helpful to view these worries in a more mathematical way. Although many people on the spectrum are very good at math, there's a common belief that math and emotions are two different things. As both an engineer and a therapist, I like to explore the intersection of math and emotion.

You don't need to have an advanced understanding of probability theory to use this technique. Simply think about the general odds that something you worried about will actually happen. Usually, worries are quite specific, and are based on the idea that many specific events will have to occur. To think about probability, it's a simple matter to consider how likely each event is. You don't need a great deal of accuracy, but I find it's helpful to have a number, like 1 in 100, rather than a word such as "unlikely" or "rarely".

Here's an example. Suppose you're worried about a traffic accident making you late to the airport, so that you miss a flight. If this is a valid worry, then it makes sense to take steps to leave earlier. But, so often, the actual worry is unlikely to happen. That's when looking at probability makes sense. How often is there an accident that causes a delay on the roads? Once per day? How likely is it that the delay will be when you're actually on the road? Once per 2 months? How likely is it that the delay will be more than a few minutes? Although I travel busy Bay Area highways, it's rare that the accidents cause delays of more than a few minutes. Maybe the chances are 1 day in 365 that the delay will be so long I would miss the flight. Does that warrent a great deal of worry?

If your worries continue, it can be helpful to do the following tedious yet enlightening exercise. Make a rough estimate of the actual odds of your worry. Create a jar or bowl filled with white pieces of paper, representing everything working out OK, and just enough dark pieces of paper to represent your worry. The chances of one in 1000 could be represented by one piece of blue paper in a sea of 999 pieces of white paper. Although it takes a bit of time, it's not that difficult to cut many scraps of paper by stacking sheets. It's also helpful to see just how long it takes to cut 999 pieces of paper as compared to the one piece of blue paper. I find that the actual exercise of pulling papers from the jar repeatedly helps to illustrate in an experiential way exactly how unlikely many worries are.

Then you get to take the same steps I suggested in the earlier post. Manage the emotion of anxiety, and take the practical steps to deal with the issues as well.