To Combat Stress, Force Yourself to Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario

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When you’re in a jam — a looming deadline, say, or the sudden, awful realization that you’ve screwed up something big on a work project — it’s natural to reach for optimistic thoughts as a way of calming yourself down. It’s probably not that bad, you think, or Maybe no one will notice that I blew this, or If I work at double speed, there’s a chance I can still finish in time.

And maybe that works, for a little while. Sooner or later, though, reality becomes harder to avoid, and you’re forced to admit that all those little hypotheticals are far-fetched at best, outright fantasy at worst. But in a recent column in Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Petrie, a consultant and researcher who studies organizational behavior, offered up another way to cope with stress, one that seems like a 180-degree turn from self-soothing: Think of the absolute worst-case scenario.

“Pressure is not stress,” he wrote. “But the former is converted to the latter when you add one ingredient: rumination, the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts.” But forcing yourself to imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen is a way to stop rumination in its tracks. So you’re late on a deadline — what does that mean? Your colleagues might make some snarky remarks. Your boss might be pissed. You might have to make it up to your team in some way. It’s awkward for a while, and then it’s not anymore.

“Ruminators tend to catastrophize,” Petrie wrote, “but resilient leaders keep things in perspective for themselves and their teams.” Most of the time, the worst case-scenario isn’t awful enough to warrant the level of anxiety you’re feeling — and the sooner you make yourself realize that, the sooner you can calm down, get back to feeling okay, and do what you need to do.

To Combat Stress, Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario