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Stop Thinking Catastrophically and Reduce Stress

Worry is one serious cause of stress in many people's lives. Worriers are consummate catastrophizers and awfulizers. They are constantly vigilant, on the lookout for horrendous problems and imminent disasters. This vigilance in and of itself can be stressful, not to mention emotionally and physically draining.

And even if a feared event does happen, will it always result in catastrophic results like the following?

  • If I lose my job, I’ll wind up in a box on the street!

  • If I fail the test, my life will be totally ruined!

  • If I don’t get into that college, my career is in the toilet!

  • If I don’t meet my deadline, they’ll cancel the whole project!

  • If I’m late, they’ll never talk to me again!

Probably not. Whenever you emotionally exaggerate the importance of a situation (by saying, for example, “This is the worst thing that could ever happen!”), you can be sure that your stress level will rise accordingly.

You can quickly turn something small that warrants some concern into a major catastrophe that elicits significant stress. Yes, sometimes things don’t work out. You may fear losing your job, and you may even actually lose your job.

But even when the worst happens, you’ll cope. Life will go on. You may not forget the catastrophes, but you will probably come to accept them.

Assessing your stress balance can be a useful tool in helping you determine if your worrying is excessive. It can help you get perspective.

To find out whether you’re “in balance,” start by writing down a current worry. Now rate the relative importance of that worry on a ten-point scale, where one represents a minor worry and ten is an important worry.

For example, suppose your worry is, “I’m worried that the gift I gave a friend for her birthday wasn’t fancy enough.” In the bigger scheme of things, this is a relatively small problem and probably warrants something like a one or two (or maybe a three if you’re mentioned in her will). But probably not much more.

Now, rate the amount of worry you’re experiencing using a similar ten-point scale, where one represents very little worrying and ten represents an incredible amount of worrying. Now check your balance by comparing the importance of the worry with your level of distress.

Most of the time, the ratings should be at about the same level; if so, you’re probably thinking straight and looking at your worry in an appropriate way.

If your worry level is greater than your rated level of importance — for example, worrying at an eight level about a problem that’s only a two — you may be looking at the problem in a distorted way, perhaps creating more stress for yourself than is necessary.

If your worry level is lower than your rated level of importance, you may not be concerned enough about the problem (such as saving money for your kids’ college tuition). Alternatively, you may just have great coping skills. (You’re losing your hair, but you accept that.)

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