March 11th, 2020

There are a lot of awful things happening right now. And, we are afraid of what is going to happen next. 

Awfulizing begins with a fear and then our imagination grows it into a worst case scenario very quickly.

It might sound like this:

Coronavirus is spreading into my city. 
What if I am infected?
What if I already have it and don't know it yet?
What if I'm spreading it to my family right now?
What happens if we all get it? 
What if I die from this?

That is awfulizing. The fact is that a virus is spreading, but our fear takes us right into the extreme what-if scenarios and we imagine the worst possible outcome.

Just for fun, let's do another example:

The stock market is crashing. 
What if I lose everything I gained in the last five years? 
What if I can't retire as planned?
What if the market never recovers and the nation goes into a deep depression?
What if my company has to close?
What if I can't find another job?
What if our lifestyle has to change drastically?
What if I have to file bankruptcy?

Awful, isn't it? We can quickly take ourselves into a downward spiral of imagining the worst things. 

Here are some practices to consider so we notice our tendency to awfulize and get better at diffusing it before it becomes toxic to our happiness, relationships, productivity, and ability to sleep. Don't let awfulizing make your life awful! (If you can't sleep because of worry, here is a practice for that.)

How to Stop Awfulizing 

When we are afraid, our amygdala in the limbic system of our brain kicks into high gear. Shifting into the pre-frontal cortex (the planning center) in our brain helps to quiet the amygdala response. These practices will help you engage your pre-frontal cortex and help calm your fear. When you notice that you are playing through worst-case scenarios, try these steps and the self-talk prompts that accompany each one:

1. Look at factual data - Filter through what is a fact and what is a sensationalized story about the crisis you are facing. Often we start with a fact, but then add a story that contains imagined outcomes. Try this self-talk: "I am only reading/watching [a trusted source] for updates, and I will be careful not to add a horrible story to the facts. When I catch myself saying 'what if something bad happens to me,' I promise to also say 'what if nothing bad happens to me.'"

2. Hold onto perspective - Remind yourself of what you have already survived. Remember the threats you feared as you were growing up and in adulthood. You have survived them all, even when you were not sure that you would. You will survive this one too. Try this self-talk: "[Your name], remember when you were doing nuclear bomb drills at school and a nuclear bomb never hit? Remember when you thought you had eaten contaminated romaine, but you hadn't? You are afraid now too, but in the past you have over-worried about things that never occurred."

3. Educate yourself - Determine three things you can to do keep yourself safe during the crisis. What are the experts saying to do? What does research tell us? Once you have the three things, write them down or tell someone else, then your brain will be satisfied that you have a plan and it will quiet the amygdala response to your fear. Try this self-talk: "[Your name], you have done your homework on this crisis, you know what you need to know. Now, let's go do something that makes you feel peaceful and calm."

4. Assess your level of addiction to adrenaline - Do you feel a high when you turn on the news and see a "breaking story?" And then, a wave of fear after that initial excitement? Some of us feel an inner pull toward watching scary things. If you are one of those people, you might be getting a chemical rush when you read of a new virus outbreak or a new development in a tragic story. This doesn't mean that something is wrong with you. It just means you may need to wean yourself away from things that upset you. Try this self-talk: "[Your name], you seem to like watching/scrolling for updates, but I think you have had enough, this isn't good for your brain. What else could we do that seems exciting, but doesn't upset us so much?"

5. Coach yourself through it - Imagine what your wise mentor would say about this crisis. then speak to yourself in that same way. Try this self-talk: "[Your name], I know you are worried about this, and many people are afraid right now too. But, this too shall pass and we will look back at this some day. Press on and keep your mind steady. Take it one day at a time."

6. Stay in the present moment - Take a deep breath, place your hand on your heart, and say to yourself "[Your name], in this moment, you are fine." Taking a deep breath sends oxygen to your brain to think more clearly, cycle through 3-7 deep breaths to send extra oxygen to your brain. Placing your hand on your heart causes a release of oxytocin, which is a hormone that makes you feel loved and safe. Self-talk is a powerful tool in helping our brain calm and find rational thinking. In this moment, we are fine. The moments link together into minutes, hours, days, weeks. 

7. Practice gratitude - List five things you are grateful for. Spend more time thinking about gratitude than worry. What we focus on grows. If you want more goodness in your life, focus on good things. Imagine the best case scenarios instead of worst case. Try this self-talk: "What if I stay healthy and virus-free? What if my immune system is as strong as it has ever been? What if the market rebounds tomorrow and stays there? What if this is my best year yet?"

* * *

The human species continues to evolve. We are learning new things by the multiple crises in our midst. These learnings will advance humanity. We are a global human race, experiencing the benefits of globalization and some challenges too. All of this is part of our evolution. 

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers ― so many caring people in this world." - Fred Rogers

Look for the helpers. Connect with those around you. Allow uncertainty to bond us as we share this human experience together. 

This too shall pass. 

This article originally appeared with Reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus