Anxiety, anger, or any other negative emotional reaction is often triggered by underestimating your ability to handle life’s challenges and overestimating the severity of a possible negative outcome. In the midst of a crisis or life transition it is all too easy to be thrown off course. Whatever sense of emotional terra firma you felt can suddenly morph into quicksand. At those times, it’s important to remember your brain is hard-wired to ferret out all possible negative consequences and present them in rapid succession.
This hard wiring is known as the negativity bias. As unpleasant as it feels to be flooded with negative outcomes in a given situation, it’s actually what preserved the human race through millennia. Your brain comes equipped with an internal system looking for danger 24/7. In the days of wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers this was a great boon. Now, not so much.
In addition, humans have a natural tendency towards one trial learning. When something really bad happens your memory automatically encodes it to last, just so you will be extra alert to the possibility of it happening again in the future and as prepared as possible. Happy things are wonderful but not necessary for your safety, so they don’t get encoded as quickly or deeply. The more traumatic the event the more thoroughly it gets wired into your memory.
While that unconscious process has been very helpful historically, in day to day life it can lead to a lot of anxiety and hyper-vigilance.
The good news is some researchers believe you can shift this innate negativity-positivity template by focusing on everything good. A 5:1 ratio is supposed to do the trick. While it won’t erase the negative memories, it can make you feel more emotionally balanced and shift your outlook.
The irrefutable fact is you have managed to live through every daunting thing that ever happened to you. Those experiences may have been super challenging, even physically or emotionally painful, but if you’re reading this, you are still alive. When life seems uncertain and you feel off kilter it is important to remember you are resilient. These days, there are a plethora of studies trying to quantify and parse out what makes someone resilient. The fact is being alive is unassailable proof you survived. That’s resilience. Whether you went through the experience kicking and screaming or with great equanimity and grace, at the end of the day you were still standing.
The following are a few techniques for dealing with those times when you think you won’t make it.
Decades ago, Dr. Albert Ellis coined the term: discomfort anxiety to describe the intense anxiety you can feel when anticipating any unpleasantness, whether in a relationship, at work, medically, financially, or socially. He suggested asking yourself:
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Then, “What is the likelihood of that actually occurring?”
The final task was to imagine yourself coping with that outcome. Actually getting curious about how you would handle it, finding similar situations in the past you navigated and lived through, and even imagining different ways you could deal with this new challenge. It’s like training for a marathon, only this training is psychological and builds emotional muscle.
Another technique to help you remember your inner strength and coping capacity is to write a list of some major issues you have faced, whether vocational, medical, relational, financial, or emotional and how you dealt with them. The more you can remember and list, the better, as each will remind you of your flexibility and resilience which tamps down feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
There will be some days when you might simply let the hours pass without doing any major intervention, allowing what happened and just inhaling and exhaling. Even if you have successfully used some tried and true interventions in the past, like breath work, reframing your thoughts, or yoga nidra to calm your nervous system, this moment may be differently challenging and call for the super compassionate approach of soothing yourself with calming, loving words, plenty of rest, and healthy food. Getting through it and experiencing your emotions along the way is the holy grail.
There are times, though, when the only control you have is how you choose to react. People get divorced, lose jobs, have serious illnesses, lose loved ones, and experience financial reverses. Often there is nothing you can do about those shocking, tumultuous experiences. Grieve, rant, rave, cry, let your emotions flow.
Last but not least, ask for help. A friend, family member, neighbor, therapist, church mate, or a stranger on a hotline, can be there to support you. Asking for help when you need it takes guts, and only adds to your repertoire of coping skills.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang