The skill of using one's brain power to defeat worries and victim feelings
Cognitive thinking is what differentiates humans from most animal species. “Thinking things through” or “re-appraising a worrisome situation” is a coping skill directed by the more developed part of our brain, the cortex. Unfortunately, humans don’t use it often enough!
What is it that we really need to reappraise? Using the prefix “re”, means we are assuming that an initial appraisal of a situation has already taken place. If that is the case, why do we have to do it again? Besides, why are we not aware of that first round of “appraisals”?
When we are faced with a worrisome situation (a dangerous circumstance, a major life or work change, a financial problem, etc.), our brain registers that as a threat (a stressor) and reacts accordingly. The stress response center of the brain is the limbic system, the part of brain that is more primitive and works in the background without our awareness. It controls the autonomic nervous system and neuro-hormonal pathways which do their duty autonomously, without our input.
The initial appraisal of a threat is therefore done at the sub-conscious level.
Were you surprised by what I just said?! You were probably thinking: “Hey, I’m quite aware of threats against me and their possible consequences”.
If you thought so, you are both right and wrong! You are quite aware of the outside threats. The awareness comes not from the limbic system but from the “somato-sensory” nervous system which resides in our sense organs and our cortex.
But your initial reaction to stress is not adjusted to the the level of threat or its consequences. The limbic system is developed to assume the worst possible consequence, a risk to your life. Without your knowledge and input, it orders your body to act accordingly to save your life. This is a survival physiology without which, the human race and most animal species would be extinct.
While some threats to life are real (such as being attacked by an animal, being caught in a fire, famine, etc.) others could be either exaggerated or altogether perceived. To the limbic system a threat is a threat and will be dealt with the same way all the time. This is because our stress responses are non-specific.
To stay healthy, we need to somehow differentiate between real threats (life-threatening), not-so real threats and false threats. We know the primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, is not going to do the differentiation for us. This is where our “cognitive reappraisal” skill is needed. We need to consciously “re-think” or “reappraise” what our subconscious brain has already appraised as maximum threat. This skill requires learning and practice.
The major difference between “change victims” and “change winners” and between “chronic worriers” and “non-worriers” is their ability to learn and use this skill. If you have not already worked on learning it, take heart. It is easy. The trick is to practice it all the time so it becomes second nature.
Five Basic learning steps for “cognitive re-appraisal" skills
When faced with a worrisome situation, learn to ask yourself these five key questions in this order:
1- Is this threat real?
2- What is the worst case scenario?
3- What are my options?
4- What are my action steps for my options?
5- What/where are my resources?
Now let’s look at those questions with different sample scenarios.
1- Is this threat real?
If your answer to this question is “No!, you need not worry about the rest of the questions. You have already done your re-appraisal and you are finished. As soon as you realize there is no real threat, your body will get out of the stress mode, especially if you combine your answer with a couple of slow deep breaths.
Examples of “no-threat discoveries”:
Example scenario #1:
You are driving on a busy street. A rude driver cuts you off. You honk your horn. He gives you the finger!
The Limbic system appraisal: "Get ready to fight!". For most people, left to their nature, this situation constitutes a threat. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, your face gets red, breathing becomes faster, and the whole body is aroused for fighting as you curse the rude driver; too much wear and tear on your body, too much anger, all for nothing.
Cognitive Re-appraisal: “I’ll probably never run into the moron again. I won’t get angry and wreck my health. This is a non-event. It’s already over. There is no threat. Relax. (Take two deep breaths and think of something good instead).
Example scenario #2:
You are eating breakfast before going to work. You have an early morning meeting scheduled. As your son tries to say goodbye and run for the school bus, he spills your coffee on your suit and shirt. You think this is going to make you late for the meeting.
Limbic system appraisal: Get ready to fight! Your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate go up. You are angry and you fear being late for the meeting. you scold your child then give him a curt lecture (i.e hurt his feelings and ruin his day because he just ruined yours). You feel guilty afterwards which causes even more stress!
Cognitive re-appraisal: My son didn’t do it intentionally. We all make blunders. I can change my clothes in less than five minutes. I’ll probably be on time any way but even if I’m two minutes late it won’t really matter that much. There is no threat. Relax! I’ll tell my child not to worry about it; I’ll smile and give him a kiss on his head!
2- What is the worst case scenario?
This is the next logical question to ask yourself if you determine that a threat is real.
Example scenario #3:
Your boss gives you the bas news. Your job position is eliminated and you are to vacate your office the same day. In other words, you are fired! You have been with the company for fourteen years and this is how they treat you!
Limbic system appraisal: Get ready for a fight and a prolonged recovery as you may get injured in the process. Not only your body gets into stress mode immediately, it will stay there for quite a long time. Your cardiovascular system takes a huge beating, so does your immune system. You are a set up for accidents due to mental distractions and many illnesses.
Question # 1: Is this threat real?
Answer: Yes it is. OK. Let’s go to question #2.
Question #2: What is the worst case scenario?
Answer: OK, let’s see! Is anyone’s life in danger? No! can I possibly survive this financially? Yes! Are there going to be hardships? Possibly. Will my spouse be scared or at least apprehensive? Yes. Will it be an embarrassment with friends and acquaintances? Probably not. They know it was not me but the company going through difficulties and changes.
OK then, the worst case scenario is some financial hardships and the fact that I need to re-assure my spouse that I’ll find another job in not so distant future. This step alone will send signals to your limbic system to tone down your stress mode as there is no real threat to your life. But you still have some worries remaining. The next few questions will address those.
3- What are my options?
You systematically think of all the options available to you at this point. Most people have more options than they think at the first thought. The very first thought process after a stress response is usually not your best. It is preferable to write all your options down then re-sort them in order of desirability plus feasibility.
4- What are my "action steps" for my options?
For each option, you list all the actions you are going to take with a definite date on which you are going to take the actions.
5- What are my human resources?
This most important step is ignored by majority of people especially men, who are by nature reluctant to ask for help (macho factor!) and in general not as good communicators as women are. You probably have more resources that you originally thought. Those resources should be tapped as much as possible without reservation. Majority of people would be more than willing to help if someone just cared enough to ask.
Resources to help you achieve your action steps include, but are not limited to, are your:
Spouse and family members
Friends and acquaintances
Previous work colleagues
Banker, financial planner or accountant
Previous teachers or college professors
Make a list of all your potential resources; put them adjacent to your action list and draw connecting lines to show you who you think is a resource with what. Then pick up your telephone and start calling and communicating.
You can apply the same sequence of appraisals to just about any stressful situation, whether it is in your personal life or in your work life. They will significantly reduce your worries and stress levels and help you become a " winner of circumstances" rather than a " victim of circumstances".
For another stress reduction skill, if you haven’t already done so, look up “Being prepared reduces stress”.