The catastrophic spiral has claimed many an opportunity. 

It eats any chance at momentum. It makes all future possibilities negative in appearance. 

“What if” my mind goes blank during the presentation? 

“What if” the board of directors hate my proposal? 

The spiral begins with one or two “what if” thoughts, and before you know it there is a boogeyman behind every potential scenario. 

But what kind of future do you create for yourself when your “what if” thoughts are what you’re living into, rather than a future that excites you – a future of positive potential? 

This article is the second in a three-part series on being overwhelmed. The first entry dealt with being overwhelmed from too many commitments. Today’s post is all about becoming overwhelmed from your “what if” thoughts. 

Bookmark this article so when you find yourself or someone you care about crippled by negative possibilities and distorted thoughts, come back and try out a few of the exercises. 

It’s worth noting, this article isn’t meant to take the place of a mental health professional. If you give these exercises a try but continue to find yourself struggling, then you really should consider reaching out to a therapist. We all need some extra support from time to time. 

Collect & Challenge

I wish I could remember where I first read about this exercise, as it’s saved me from the catastrophic too many times to count. And there are many iterations of its “collect and challenge” format. Regardless of what word choice, though, its core structure is nonetheless incredibly effective. 

When you find yourself struggling with a “what if” thought, then follow these three steps. 

  1. Catch the anxiety-inducing thought. 
  2. Collect evidence around the thought. 
  3. Challenge the thought. 

Let’s take a common professional scenario and run through each step. You have a big presentation coming up with the whole board of executives in attendance, in addition to countless peers. 

Despite seeing this as an opportunity to build professional momentum for your career, all your brain can think about is everything that could go wrong. 

“What if” they hate my content? 

“What if” I blow this and I’m demoted or even fired? 

First things first, let’s catch the thought(s) that is – at its core – crippling you with anxiety. 

“I’m nervous that I’m going to blow this presentation.” 

Next, let’s collect all the evidence we have at hand around this situation – with some assumptions since its fictitious. Foremost, you were chosen to present in this critical meeting, so there is obviously a recognition for your hard work and talent. Additionally, you’ve presented in the past and did very well, so there’s trust for you. 

It’s almost never always rosy, though. You also get nervous when you speak in front of people, even though you’ve done it many times. You’ve never had to present in front of the CEO before. The topic in question isn’t your favorite, but a project at work you were brought into just three weeks before. 

Last, let’s take all the information we have and find opportunities to challenge your “what if” thought – “what if” you blow this presentation. 

There’s so much information on hand here that predicts a different future than one of failure. You were picked for this opportunity because your boss believes in you. Would he put his own neck on the line by picking someone he doesn’t believe in? Even if you get nervous when presenting, you must be pretty good at it if you’ve presented in the past and they’ve selected you for this critical meeting. 

You were hand picked for this opportunity. Everyone else believes in you. Put your energy into preparing and crushing this, not into being worried about failing. 

Catch. Collect. Challenge.

Excited vs Anxious

In 2014, Harvard researchers tested a new performance theory called anxious reappraisal. In the experiment, they had subjects perform three different tasks around singing, speaking, and testing. Some subjects were told to acknowledge the fact they were anxious, but to tell themselves to calm down. The other participants were given a script that attempted to reframe their anxiety as excitement – “I’m not anxious to sing this song in front of my peers, I’m just really excited to do it!” 

In each activity, those who reframed their anxiety as excitement significantly outperformed their peers. 

What happens when a person says “I’m excited” rather than “I’m anxious and just need to calm down”? 

We’re not 100% sure, but we have a strong hunch of what’s taking place. When someone is anxious, their brain is being flooded with cortisol – the hormone responsible for stress. This is where the increased heart rate, sweaty palms, etc. all comes from – your nervous system is going into fight or flight mode. But when cortisol reaches key regions of your brain you also experience cognitive decline in aspects critical to performance.

However, by reframing your feelings as excitement instead of anxiety, researchers believe that your prefrontal cortex becomes buffered from cortisol and you’re better able to stay focused on the task at hand. So instead of your cognition being overcome by your lizard brain, you’re able to actually receive some of the benefits of anxiety (the physical arousal) while maintaining your mental focus. In essence, you’re positioning yourself to receive the best of both worlds. 

The next time you have to give a speech or presentation and you feel the pre-show jitters coming on, focus on reframing your emotions as excitement instead of nervousness or anxiety. Literally say out loud to yourself, “what I’m feeling is an excitement for this opportunity.” And watch your performance increase. 

Summary

Anxious thoughts are a normal part of human existence, and we all experience them. It’s how we let them affect us that separates the high performers. 

When you become overwhelmed from “what if” thoughts, you’ve given away control of your future and are letting it be dictated by worst case scenarios. 

When this occurs, there are two powerful exercises to get you out of the catastrophic spiral. 

Practice the 3 Cs: 1) catch the anxious thought, 2) collect evidence around the situation, 3) challenge the anxious thought with contradictory evidence. 

Reframe your anxious thoughts as excitement. You can do this out loud or through journaling. Instead of trying to force yourself to calm down, state that “I’m actually really excited to do ___.” 

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