Preparing for the Worst Makes Things Worse
Why the secret to getting through any stressful period is embracing uncertainty
Right now, we’re somehow both a few short months and an eternity away from the next election. And whatever your political persuasion, it can be tempting — especially in this bitter, fractious time — to assume a defensive crouch against disaster by assuming the worst.
Imagining catastrophes, and preparing for them, is our evolutionary heritage. It’s what makes us human. When we feel threatened, our brain needs fast-track mechanisms to determine how to act quickly, and “better safe than sorry” is certainly an effective one. Throughout our history, the people who prepared for the worst were often the ones who survived.
But in this case, your evolutionary heritage can come back to bite you. Preparing for the worst isn’t a way to manage your distress over the state of the world; it’s an exacerbating factor. Emotional reactivity generated by the news, politics, and your neighbors can warp reality and leave your brain stuck on high alert. And the high-alert function in your brain is notoriously uncreative — when it’s on, you usually fight, flee, freeze, or fret. You don’t process in a healthy way. You don’t feel get to a place of feeling better.
In other words, you don’t cope. Here’s how preparing for the worst can backfire, and, when you’re staring down some truly frightening possibilities for the future, what to do instead.
Preparing for the worst makes us more anxious, not less
In the therapy world, assuming the worst is sometimes known as a cognitive distortion. And when reality becomes distorted through a negative lens, negative emotions begin to take over. In some cases, they can lead to symptoms of depression or anxiety—which only further fuel our sense of doom.
One could point to climate change, or the border crisis, or the general shaky state of our democracy to argue that there are plenty of real problems that have nothing to do with distorted reality. But how you respond to those challenges is where the distortion comes in: When you assume disaster is imminent, your brain tricks you into using words like “always” or “never.”…