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Resilience - Chapter 8


Change Skill #2 of 4 - Putting It in Perspective


I’ve had many catastrophes in my life, some of which actually happened. —MARK TWAIN

For many people, their anxiety takes over and they catastrophize -- they dwell on a current adversity and within a few minutes have imagined a chain of disastrous events stretching into the future.

If you tend to obsess or to blow things out of proportion, if anxiety is a major player in your life, your first task before reading any further is to write down what it is that causes you the most worry. Once you have a clear view of what troubles you, you’ll be better equipped to put the skill of Putting It in Perspective to immediate use.

Anxiety evolved to prepare us for a threat that’s heading our way. But ironically, there are times when anxiety does anything but prepare us for threat.

Putting It in Perspective is a skill that, by changing your beliefs about future threat, brings your anxiety down to a manageable level -- a level that is more in proportion with the real degree of threat. That’s when you are best able to prepare for the most likely consequences of an adversity.

Like Challenging Beliefs, Putting It in Perspective is designed to guide us to more accurate thinking. But while Challenging Beliefs is applied to our why beliefs, our beliefs about the causes of adversity, Putting It in Perspective works with our beliefs about the implications of the adversity -- what’s going to happen in the future now that the adversity has struck.

There is a link between our explanatory style and our beliefs about the future -- our what-next beliefs. People with always and everything explanatory styles are at risk for catastrophic what-next beliefs. If you have an “always” style, then you’ll predict that the cause of this current problem also will play a role in your future life. If you also tend to have “everything-why” beliefs, then you are, in essence, saying to yourself not only that your problems will be around for a long time but that they will affect everything you do.

People trained in Putting It in Perspective can use it in a multitude of ways. It can ease your anxiety and fear of embarrassment. It can teach you not to pounce on the first future threat belief that pops into your head as if it were necessarily true. By helping you to curb your worst-case fears, Putting It in Perspective can substantially increase your sense of optimism about the future. And with your fears in check, you will be freed up to reach out and take advantage of the myriad opportunities that come your way.

Whether you use Putting It in Perspective to quell overwhelming anxiety or to stay alert to an actual threat, it will bring you greater resilience through superior emotion regulation, impulse control, and realistic optimism.

How Does Catastrophic Thinking Start?

Recall the last time you found yourself catastrophizing. Write down your ABCs. The key elements are to describe the adversity objectively, to capture all your ticker-tape future-threat beliefs (which can also be called worst-case beliefs), and to identify how you felt, how strong the emotion was, and what you did.

Step 1. Write Down the Ticker-Tape Chain

When looking back at that time, the first step is to write down your future-threat ticker-tape beliefs as they occurred, as each catastrophic belief chained into the next.

There are three noteworthy general features of catastrophizing.

  1. All of your beliefs are projections into the future. We can estimate how likely each link in the chain really. You are building a story, a prophecy, step by step and link by link. Each successive link represents a further reach into the future. No link in the chain can happen unless the link before it occurs.

  2. The jump from one link to the next is relatively minor. Each step seems so small, so reasonable, and so logical that it’s easy to see how you could get seduced into the chain. When we catastrophize, no single link requires us to make major leaps of faith or significantly suspend our disbelief, so we see no reason to doubt that the chain is reasonable and true.

  3. The seductive nature of the catastrophic chain is compounded because elements of the chain are true, not in the sense that they are highly probable but that they flow logically one from the other. Parts of the chain are pure logic. These “patches” of logic in our catastrophic chain make it easier for people to glide over and accept the other parts of the chain. To make matters worse, as we create each link in the chain, our anxiety increases, and the increasing anxiety makes it even easier to believe the catastrophic picture that is emerging. The seductive nature of the chain coupled with your mounting anxiety is why your catastrophic beliefs seem so real when you’re in the midst of them.

Step 2. Estimate the Probabilities of Your Worst-Case Fears

The key to ending your catastrophizing is to break free of the chain of future-threat beliefs.

And the best way to do that is to underscore what you know as fact. For each event in the chain, ask yourself what are the chances of this happening because your adversity has hit you. Catastrophizing leads you to waste your energy planning for highly improbable outcomes. The more time you waste ruminating, the less time you have on figuring out the quickest way to a solution.

Step 3. Generate Best-Case Alternatives

Just as exhorting someone to think outside the box or be creative is not sufficiently prescriptive, neither is it a useful strategy merely to tell someone to get real. So what does it take to climb out of a future-threat rut? You have to create best-case scenarios.

Constructing an equally low probability best-case scenario does two things.

1. It forces you out of your worst-case scenario thinking. By spending two or three minutes developing an outlandishly fantastic and silly fantasy, you will be better able to think more clearly about the likely implications because you’ve switched off the doom-and-gloom part of your brain.

2. Your best-case story will make you laugh. And there is nothing like a little humor to lower your anxiety and get you in a better place to deal with the real problems before you. In fact, if you don’t find yourself chuckling at your best-case scenario, it’s probably not outlandish enough so you should keep at it until the absurdity forces a grin.

Resilience lies in detecting and problem solving the most likely outcomes, and our final step in Putting It In Perspective is designed to help us do that.

Step 4. Identify Most Likely Implications

It’s important to remember that this all began with an adversity, a negative event. So it’s reasonable to expect that the most likely implications will be negative. We don’t want anyone to sugarcoat the issues that are bothering them.

Be honest and identify what bad things are likely to happen and how you can diffuse them.

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