14 Jun Wish you could stop always jumping to the worst possible conclusion? Here’s now…
via Quartz by Bonnie St John
When we obsess about what might possibly happen in the future, our imaginations can easily push us off the edge and into deep waters. Thoughts like these are so prevalent in modern society that psychologists have given them a name: awfulizing.
Cognitive psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis, the pioneer of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in the 1950s, first coined the term to describe the act of escalating a situation into the most negative possible conclusion, often with no concrete evidence to prove its validity. Dr. Ellis theorized that adversity or events alone don’t cause people to feel anxious or upset. Instead, you get the most worked up over beliefs or preconceived notions about the potential consequences of the negative event. In other words, you don’t fall into despair because you’ve made a mistake at work; you get upset because you start worrying about how that mistake could get you fired.
For example, whenever I used to see the number of my daughter’s school come up on my phone, I would immediately wonder if she was bleeding or injured. But it was almost always about something innocuous, like forgetting to sign some bureaucratic form. Now I get the same anxiety running through my body whenever I see a call come in from my 90-year-old mother-in-law’s house.
Anthropologically speaking, we can’t help these self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, and even the most optimistic of us can fall in to the awfulizing trap. That’s because it’s evolutionary: Our prehistoric ancestors developed rapid andintense reactions to negative stimuli because such events often were a matter of life and death. This impulse was a subconscious physical response that was essential to survival. We, of course, are the decedents of those folks who were particularly good at this. (The others were eaten.) As such, our physiology is designed to draw us strongly toward the negative—apprehension, rage, pessimism—whenever we feel even mildly threatened.
On the other hand, positive stimuli didn’t require early humans to expend nearly so much energy. (Nobody saw berries on a bush and excitedly shouted, “BERRIES!!!”) According to research by P.C. Ellsworth and C.A. Smith in their study “Shades of Joy: Patterns of Appraisal Differentiating Pleasant Emotions,” we inherited a slow, diffuse, almost lackadaisical response to the good things in life.
As a society, we have moved from pervasive physical threats to emotional ones. It’s these “bad” impressions that begin to control our mind and body. In the paper “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” from the Review of General Psychology, psychologist RF Baumeister explains that bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact on a person than good ones. We also strive harder to avoid bad self-definitions (“She’s lazy”) than to pursue good ones (“She’s hard-working”).
Research shows that awfulizing situations can lead to lower productivity, limited creativity, and more overall stress and anxiety in the workplace. Here’s why it matters: Research shows that awfulizing situations can lead to lower productivity, limited creativity, and more overall stress and anxiety in the workplace. When we begin to awfulize or feel threatened, the amygdala, which is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the brain cortex, triggers our fight-or-flight response. Our body responds as though we are experiencing an actual threat, whether it’s real or not…
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