Getting to the root of your fear

Anxiety can sometimes be quite tricky to deal with. It tells us we should be afraid of something and get away from the fear as quickly as possible – this is known as avoidance. Avoidance is at the root anxiety disorders; it leads to short-term relief but long-term pain.

Interestingly, avoidance doesn’t just happen at a behavioural level. That is, we don’t run away from fears only physically, but sometimes we even run away from the fear cognitively too.

What I mean by that is that anxiety tells us something catastrophic: “I shouldn’t go outside because something terrible will happen”. Our desire to avoid the whole situation makes us not really process this thought and we stop there. We decide to not go outside and leave it at that because the whole ordeal of the anxiety is too energy consuming and scary to deal with.

Because of this, the problem is that we don’t really get to think through the anxious thoughts. We never really consciously think about what this terrible thing is. Because of that, we end up with a very general and vague sense of the anxiety – this makes it hard to deal with it and maintains our anxiety in the long-term.

The downward arrow technique

The downward arrow technique is a helpful skill that gets us to the bottom of our anxiety. It asks a very important, but oft-neglected question: And then what?

What will happen next if you did go outside? What if you struck up a conversation with the person next to you in class? What if you didn’t memorize every last word in your presentation for work next week?

The importance of the downward arrow technique is that it allows us to think through our worse fears to see what is at the bottom of our worries – our core beliefs.

The downward arrow technique therefore allows us to understand what it is that we are truly afraid of and reflect on the core belief underlying our fear. By doing so, we can really evaluate the veracity of our belief – i.e., is the belief true?

An example of the downward arrow technique

Let’s give an example of how the downward arrow technique might work with one of the examples we used earlier: “I shouldn’t talk to the classmate sitting next to me”

And then what? What might happen?

Well, they won’t want to talk to me, or they may be busy.

And then what?

They might be angry at me for talking to them.

And then what?

I would feel really upset to know that somebody doesn’t want to talk to me or is upset at me.

And then what?

-I would feel like a loser and feel worthless.

As you can see, when we progressed down the downward arrow, the person’s fears of talking to their classmate was a result of a core belief that if they are not well-received by other people, they are worthless.

By understanding this underlying core belief, we can then look for ways to challenge them to reduce our anxiety.

Downward arrow example
Another example of a downward arrow of a person who puts their self-worth in their academic performance

Conducting a cost-benefit analysis

It’s important to honour the fact that all behaviours are not necessarily fully good or fully bad – there are pros and cons with each decision we make. This is also the case in anxiety behaviours.

Sometimes, we realize that although we are thinking of changing a behaviour, part of the reason it’s hard to do so is because there are benefits of staying with the status quo. For example, I might want a shredded six-pack at first, but realize that it would mean I would have to limit a lot of food that I typically eat and exercise a bit more than is sustainable given my motivation.

A cost-benefit analysis helps us to understand both benefits and cons of making a change. To do so, you might create a list for and against making a change. An example is provided below:

Pros of not talking to my classmate:

  • I avoid possible rejection from my classmate
  • I don’t feel anxious thinking about the idea of talking to them
  • I can spend that time working on my own tasks
  • If he they reject me, then I would have to be very uncomfortable sitting next to them

Pros of talking to my classmate:

  • I may make a close friend and increase my social circle, which is one of my goals
  • We could help each other study in the course
  • We may also be able to spend more time outside of the class, such as playing sports, checking out university events
  • Even if we don’t end up being friends, I might feel a lot better facing my fears afterwards

As you can see, there are both pros to keeping the status quo and to making a change. It’s up to you to decide which side has more benefits to you. Even if you decide to not change, it can often be empowering to know that what you are doing is exactly right for yourself!

book on values
It’s important to consider your own values when determining the best course of action

Evaluating our beliefs using behavioural experiments

Through understanding our underlying beliefs, we can come up with ways to ‘test’ whether our predictions are likely to be true through behavioural experiments.

For example, the prediction here is that “if I speak to my classmate, they will be upset at me or won’t want to talk to me”. Once you have decided that there are more benefits to making a change, then you can take on a curious experimenter stance and see what happens when you talk to a classmate.

Although scary, the behavioural experiment gives us real evidence to see whether our anxious predictions are true. Moreover, it gives us information on how we might deal with times when our anxious prediction actually came out to be true.

Friends studying in class
“I’m glad I ended up talking to the person next to me”


  • Our anxious behaviours are usually caused by a deep underlying core belief
  • The downward arrow technique is a strategy to uncover this belief
  • A cost-benefit analysis is a great tool to determine whether a behaviour should be continued or changed
  • Behavioural experiments can be used to test our anxious belief

I hope this post was helpful to understanding some of the core beliefs underlying your anxious thoughts and answering the question of “and then what?”.

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Best wishes,