It’s true, our brains are wired for certainty. A lack of certainty tends to trigger a threat response, at least a sense of heightened alertness, maybe increased anxiety or a sense of dread.
Fear and anxiety are different. Like many other animals we can sense fear in the moment, in the presence of a real danger even if it is only subconsciously perceived – a stick that looks like a snake, a sense of movement that might be a spider or a mouse. I might not be able to define it but I can feel that fear in the moment. This fear is a primitive but helpful response to something that we believe is a threat in the here and now. We stop, we search, we fight or we flee.
As humans we can also anticipate potential danger at some future time. The possibility that something bad might happen can generate a deep sense of anxiety.
If the anticipation of possible danger helps us to reduce the risk of the future event happening then it will have served a useful purpose. The problem is that many of us succumb to something much less helpful – catastrophising!
Sometimes, when faced with the possibility of future danger, rather than live with the uncertainty of not knowing we choose the certainty of catastrophe. We jump to conclusions, assume the worst, and condense the many different possibilities and shades of grey into one certain cloud of blackness.
It might be awful but it’s certain. Strangely and maybe perversely we often prefer to live with the worst case scenario than to wait and see.
So how do we get beyond this?
I think the first step is to recognise what we are doing: it’s called catastrophising.
When we catastrophise we tend to:
- assume the worst possible outcome,
- blame – ourselves mostly, sometimes others too,
- expect the effects to last forever and affect every part of our lives.
When we see what we are doing we gain access to tools to change this.
- What is really going to happen? Do we know for certain? Can we explore other potential results? Even if we feel they are unlikely, are there less devastating possibilities? If we could muster a little or even a lot of sceptical optimism, what might a better outcome be? Can you make a list of possible outcomes where total disaster is only one of many?
- What really happened? The chances are we didn’t do it on purpose, possibly we didn’t do it alone. Are there mitigating circumstances? Did we make a mistake? Have we learned a lesson? While we wait for the outcome to appear, can we be doing something constructive to make things better or to minimise the impact?
- Many things feel as if they will have a permanent effect but the truth is that people are highly resilient. We find ways to come back, to create a new route to our goal or find a new goal to pursue. Even while you are waiting for the outcome of this scenario to become clear, can you begin to see that whatever happens, you will find a way to create a new path forward…
Susan Jeffers great book “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” asks a really important question. “If the worst possible thing happened, could you handle it?”. It might not be what you wanted, it might not be pleasant but as long as it’s not fatal, you will find a way to handle it.
So, as you contemplate the future, if you recognise the black cloud of gloom and the sickening sense of powerlessness that accompany catastrophising, step back from the edge. Remind yourself that your brain is choosing certainty over uncertainty and that, in this situation that’s not a helpful outcome.
This might be a good time to have a cup of tea and begin to take the tiny steps that give you some sense of control. And most of all remember, up to now you have a 100% track record. Whatever happens, you can handle it.