Stress Management and Mastery: Practicing Perspective

Q. I wonder if you could help me with a problem that just seems to be getting worse. I seem to blow everything out of proportion. I react so strongly to even small problems and always think the worst is going to happen. My friends tell me I do it, my husband tells me, and I know I do and I'm tired of it.

A. Whether you call it blowing things out of proportion, making a mountain out of a molehill, or some other phrase, it all comes down to turning every event into a potential catastrophe. This is called catastrophism.

It's a learned response. Most people who practice catastrophism have either had it modeled for them by someone else, received a great deal of attention when they go the high drama route, or both. Sometimes the problem can even get solved, which greatly reinforces the response.

Symptoms of catastrophism

Total or near total loss of perspective on the relative importance of events.

Turning the simple into something complex.

Viewing most, if not all, problems as potentially life-threatening.

Going from 0 to 60 emotionally in response to life's challenges.

Demanding that others see the situation the same way you do.

Frustration with others when they don't see it the same as you.

Catastrophism can be a very draining experience. Going from 0 to 60 all the time wears you out.

Imagine a meter that measures from 0 to 10, with 0 as rest and 10 as the strongest possible reaction. When we are faced with a challenge, we are designed to go from rest to some number on the meter and then back down to rest. But when we make events a catastrophe, we respond by shooting up the meter and never coming back down to rest.

Fairly soon we live at an intensity level of 5 and rarely get back to rest.

Another negative consequence of catastrophism is that people begin to not take you seriously. When everything is a big deal to you, then nothing is a big deal to those around you. So, when something really is a big deal, others will think you are crying wolf.

Another consequence is people tend to shy from the intensity and drama, so again, when something is an actual crisis, nobody's around to take you seriously.

Fortunately, there are many ways to intervene in this process and get the changes you want.

Practicing perspective

The first thing I recommend is to practice some perspective. Perspective is something you either use or lose. I worked with a client whose motto in the face of challenges was "Well, they can't cook and eat me." There might be some wisdom there. While you may not want to use those exact words, telling yourself "this is just an event" can calm you down and allow you to respond more effectively.

A fun way to get a different perspective on a problem is to think of a character whom you admire in a book or movie and ask yourself "How would this person respond to this problem?"

Another practical strategy is to consider how you see the problem vs. how a video camera would see the problem.

Here's a strategy that can aid you in your perspective practice: Either write down or imagine two scales from 1 to 10, with 1 the lowest and 10 the highest. The first scale measures the importance of the event; the second scale measures your response to the event.

I'm betting you have a history of responding to lower-scale events with some dramatic, higher-scale responses. You may want to get some help from your husband or a close friend with charting the importance of an event. What you want to do is practice responding at or near the same level as the event. If the event is a 3, instead of shooting up to a 10, practice responding at a 2, 3, or 4 level.

Given time and some practice, most people are able to respond in more effective ways to the events of life. One of the best payoffs is that life becomes more fun and enjoyable.

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