walking on custard

Using Anxiety Against Itself: The Power Of Failure Modes

4 Aug 2015

Photo by Alain Pham on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Let’s borrow a concept from the world of engineering and talk about Failure Modes.

At one time or another we all get carried away with a new idea, project or way of thinking… and we forget to answer the crucial question: “what happens if this doesn’t actually work?”

Failure Modes are a technique we can use to bypass our brain’s tendency to be a little over-optimistic.*

(* I’m aware that readers of a blog about anxiety might not have ‘over-optimism’ on their Top Ten List of Problems. Bear with me, we’ll get to that in a moment!)

To state the obvious, the Failure Mode of a thing is a description of HOW IT FAILS.

For example, let’s imagine I’m designing a new test for Some Horrible Disease. And I happen to have two possible designs to choose between:

  1. Version One: A bit over-sensitive.

    This version of my test occasionally tells some people who don’t have Some Horrible Disease that they are ill.  

    The Failure Mode is therefore some unnecessary stress and anxiety for those poor people, who have to wait for another test to be administered to confirm (or hopefully deny!) the first result.

Or, the other possibility:

  1. Version Two: Not sensitive enough.

    This version of my test might miss a few people who genuinely have Some Horrible Disease, telling them they’re absolutely fine when they’re not.  

    This Failure Mode involves some people not getting the treatment they need, and possibly even dying.

It seems to me that in a choice between “a few days of unnecessary stress and anxiety” and “some deaths”, there’s a clear winner. I have to choose the too-sensitive version of the test.

Sadly, my best option is to sometimes give out bad news that turns out to be wrong. Despite how awful this is, this choice saves lives.

Clearly, in an ideal world I’d design a perfect test that never fails in either fashion.

But we can almost never do that in any real decision: we always have to choose between imperfect options.

And taking time to consider the ways in which our choices might go wrong is one method of picking between imperfect options. Let’s call this method Failure Mode Thinking.

What Does This Have To Do With Anxiety?!

It’s possible to view anxiety as Failure Mode Thinking that doesn’t go quite far enough.

Let me explain. As we’ve seen, Failure Mode Thinking is a good thing. When designing our medical test above, we were wise to consider how each version of the test might go wrong and to choose the one with the least harmful Failure Mode.

However, what happens if we apply Failure Mode Thinking to ITSELF? In other words, what if my habit of considering how things might go wrong, itself goes wrong?

Let’s consider this…

Well… one way Failure Mode Thinking might fail is… hmmm… I suppose considering what could go wrong could cause me to endlessly worry about imaginary scenarios that aren’t actually happening but possibly MIGHT happen, and that focusing on these possible failures might cause me some negative feelings and stresses and… wait a minute.

Does that sound familiar?! The Failure Mode of Failure Mode Thinking is needless anxiety!

I’m sure this won’t apply to everyone (anxiety is complex and individual and all that), but for me one strand of the big anxiety tangle is an obsession with avoiding risk of all kinds.

And since there are never any perfect options – so every option I could take has SOME failure scenarios – I can easily get stuck choosing between a million different possible failures and wondering “which of all these possible failures is the least-worst?”

No wonder anxiety is so unpleasant! When I’m stuck in Failure Mode Thinking, in order to make a decision I have to imagine every possible way every possible decision could go wrong, and choose my ‘favourite’ option from all those potential disasters. Ouch.

What To Do About It

There are a few strategies I use now to avoid this trap.

  1. Recognise if my Failure Mode thinking is a helpful use of Failure Modes, or if I’m stuck in a trap.

    As we’ve seen, Failure Mode thinking isn’t automatically a bad thing. It is often useful.  

    But I have to recognise when this isn’t the case. And I think the important question here is “does this process have an end?” If there is an end in sight – if there are a countable number of possibilities, and I can calmly choose the best Failure Mode from amongst them – then I’m correctly using my Failure Mode Thinking to inform my choices. Hooray for me. If, however, I’m imagining an infinite number of possible disasters and it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to calmly pick the best one, then Failure Mode thinking is NOT the tool I want to be using right now. In which case…

  2. If I AM stuck, find a way to break the loop.

    Once I’ve realised I’m in a loop, I can use any appropriate technique to escape it. Any of my standard distraction techniques for ‘getting out of my brain’ are suitable, from mindfulness meditation, to laughing at myself, to going for a walk, to… well, anything.  

    At this point, whatever it takes to (gently) encourage myself to stop dwelling on imagined disaster counts as progress.

  3. The long term solution: Learning to tolerate uncertainty.

    As we’ve seen, there are no ‘perfect options’. This is why Failure Mode Thinking is useful in the first place: If I’m doing a spot of engineering, I can dispassionately write down the options and choose the trade-off that seems best.  

    But in my own life it can be much more difficult. To my anxious mind, any risk at all can feel unacceptable. What if I’m laughed at? What if I fail? What if this doesn’t work out? All situations contain some risk, and in the long run I have to learn to accept that level of uncertainty, or I’m doomed to an anxious existence. This means I have to occasionally force myself to act, to make a choice despite the known possibility of Failure, and to demonstrate to myself that a bit of failure & uncertainty isn’t as bad as I fear it is.

    It’s best to start small. But, for me, gradually developing a greater tolerance for uncertainty and risk has been a powerful antidote to this sort of anxiety.
Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

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