Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Is TERRIBLE! (Or Horrible, Or Awful, Or a Catastrophe, Or The-End-Of-The World, Or Devastating, Etc...)

Catastrophizing (kuh-TASS-truh-feye-zing), or believing ourselves to be so inept that we cannot effectively deal with a situation, often leads us to view situations as worse than they actually are. We describe these situations or events as terrible, horrible, awful, devastating, catastophic, end-of-the-world types of scenarios rather than situations we actually have some control over. When we think about situations this way, we tend to create so much anxiety around the situations that we cause ourselves to freeze and to completely forget that we may in fact have some influence over this situation after all.

Research has shown (Yerkes, 1908) that there is an optimal level of arousal for every task. For example, to rescue your child from a burning building takes quite a bit of arousal, but too much arousal might leave you frozen in the front yard. Too little arousal might lead you not care and the child would not be rescued. Now imagine if that high amount of arousal were present when you were to give an oral presentation in front of a crowd. You would likely be too aroused to effectively remember what you had so diligently prepared. In that situation, less arousal is required to optimally perform the task.

Sometimes we believe that there are situations that are objectively awful, terrible, hideous, devastating, or catastrophic. But again, these situations are not objectively awful. If they were, everyone would think exactly the same way about them. Let's take the recent recession as an example. Many people view the recession as horrible, awful, or even devastating. And yet some people, like those who buy and sell gold for a living, are finding this recession to actually be profitable. If a recession were objectively awful, everyone would see it as awful.

Because there is no such thing as an objectively terrible situation, we are free to label anything as terrible. When we do, we upset ourselves and make ourselves miserable. We have another freedom here, though, that we never really think about. If we can label something as terrible, we can also label the same thing as unfortunate, undesirable, or unpleasant but survivable. It is a good idea to keep in mind that there is also no event or situation that is objectively unpleasant. So adding in the words, "for me" to your description of your situation helps you to calmly, rationally deal with that situation to help you to meet your goals. For example, changing a statement from, "This recession is completely devastating!" to, "This recession is unfortunate for me and my family, and I dislike it!" helps us to maintain an optimal level of arousal about the situation, and it places us in a much better position to correct the situation than labelling the situation as devastating, terrible, horrible, or awful.

So remember, if you hear yourself using the words, "terrible", "horrible", "awful", "devastating", etc., to describe your situation or a feared event, replace those words with, "unfortunate for me." You will find that you are much more effective at dealing with situations than you thought!

For more on this topic, read Aldo Pucci's The Client's Guide to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Yerkes, R. & Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Caparative Neurology and Psychology , 18 459-482.