Stoic Philosophy: Worst Case Scenario Thinking

In Leadership, Life

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality. – Seneca


I became interested in Stoicism a couple of years back after reading The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. I resonated with many of the concepts and principles laid out in the book, but one concept stuck in my mind which I want to discuss today.

We all suffer to some extent with anxiety about the future. As much as we try to predict the future, it’s uncertain and very much out of our control, and that causes anxiety. The Stoics believe that one of the reasons we suffer from anxiety is due to a lack of preparation for, and anticipation of, problems and events in the future. As a result, before facing problems or making a difficult decision to do something, it’s necessary to prepare mentally, spending time meditating on and visualising the worst possible scenario imaginable (also known in psychology as Negative Visualisation, or Defensive Pessimism).

An Example from My Life

After hearing about this concept, I realised that I’d been already been using it for a long time in my own life. I thought back to my early years, and my continuous struggle with anxious thoughts when it came to preparing for exams in secondary school. To deal with this issue, a couple of weeks before an exam was set to take place, I’d spend time visualising myself failing, working out whether I could live with the prospect of failing, by repeatedly asking myself the question: Is the world going to end if i mess up here?

Despite my deluded thoughts, I’d eventually come round to the conclusion that the answer was NO, and life was certainly still going to go even if I failed and received 23% in one of my exams.

In this situation mental preparation and learning to accept and deal with the worst case scenario took off the edge and became my way of dealing with my anxious thoughts, which ultimately led to becoming one of the highest achieving students in school.

The Benefits of Practicing Worst Case Scenario Thinking

There are many benefits of practicing worst case scenario thinking including:

  • Understanding anxiety, accepting fear and learning to train and prime the mind for uncertainty.
  • Creating realistic expectations and avoiding disappointment.
  • More time spent doing rather than worrying.
  • More appreciation and gratitude for life.
  • Less stress and anxiety when dealing with a crisis.
  • Creation of an environment that one can prosper in.

The benefits are clear and there are many ways that we can apply this simple approach to thinking in our day-to-day lives. The Stoics like to use this philosophy to mediate on intense, or perhaps quite fatal scenarios beyond their control, such as the possibility of a loved one dying from a terrible illness, but there are many simple examples where this powerful concept can play a useful role. Let’s look at a few examples.

You’re anxious about:

  • Writing a book but no one reading it.
  • Starting a business but it not working out.
  • Asking a girl out on a date but her rejecting you.

Although the examples are hypothetical, to some extent, we’re all making decisions we’re uncertain about and can’t control every single day, so practicing the worst case scenario can be a useful way to mitigate our anxiety.

Application of Worst Case Scenario Thinking

Here’s how you can apply worst case scenario thinking to your life using a simple two-step process:

1 – Visualisation – The purpose here is to visualise and anticipate the worst case scenario. It’s not about being overly pessimistic and sabotaging yourself with negative thoughts, but simply observing the things beyond your control that could happen in the event of a crisis. Get into it and make that picture as vivid as possible by really thinking about how what you’re worrying about would feel, smell, taste and look in the worst case scenario.

Some useful questions to ask yourself: What’s the worst case scenario? What will happen if this doesn’t go right? What can I lose by doing this?

2 – Mitigation – Once you’ve visualised the worst case scenario, the next step is to ask yourself whether you are truly ready to accept the consequences. Once you have accepted the consequences of the worst case scenario, it’s important to set up systems that protect and mitigate you against the downside.

Some useful questions to ask yourself: Can I accept the consequences of the worst case scenario? How can I deal with the worst case scenario? Can I deal with this all going wrong? What’s my safety net? What systems can I put in place to mitigate the downside?


Practicing worst case scenario thinking doesn’t give you immunity from anxiety or the uncertainties of life – it’s a natural part of being alive.

Having said that, I think the Stoics were onto something and knew that most of the stuff we think might go wrong often doesn’t materialise, but that it still causes anxiety and prevents us from taking action on our dreams and goals in the first place.

Alternatively, by priming yourself to anticipate the worst case scenario and accepting the downside of any situation, instead of anxiously walking through an uncertain future, or being afraid of making a mistake every step you take, you walk with confidence, knowing fine well that you are strong enough to deal with any crisis that you encounter on your journey.

So the next time you are feeling anxious about making a difficult decision about something in the future, ask yourself:

Can you accept the worst case scenario?

written by Daniel Beaumont, Tuesday 21st November 2017

About the Author

Hello everyone, I’m Dan – a 28-year-old social entrepreneur and writer from the north of England, living in Bucharest, Romania. I’m currently writing my first book about my 4-year journey around the world seeking wisdom and life-lessons from everyday people I met hitchhiking and Couchsurfing.

I discovered that travel, if approached with the right mindset, can be life-changing, and a trip combining travel, purpose and introspection is a great way to learn, challenge oneself and change for the better. Now my mission in life is to share what I’ve learned to inspire others to embark on their own journey of self-discovery and use travel, entrepreneurship and technology as a means to make the world a better place.

I’m also the founder of Podstel – a vision to help humanity belong and grow by creating a worldwide network of ‘homes’ that bring locals and travellers together to share their stories, passions and skills. The first two Podstels are open and thriving in Bucharest, so if you’re passing through, be sure to come and say hi, or stay the night with us.

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