Confronting the worst-case scenario lends control
I just got a call from an 87-year-old lawyer friend. After 10 years of dallying, she’s updating her will. “I know it sounds silly,” she explained, “but because of the virus I’ve decided to stop procrastinating. I’m anxious about dying and taking action lessens my anxiety.”
It doesn’t sound silly at all.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, imagining the dire consequences of a given crisis and then strategizing to mitigate it actually creates a greater sense of confidence and calm. Problem-solving makes you feel more in control because you’re dealing with it.
Many professions routinely prepare for emergencies and accidents—the military, first responders, and fund managers, to name a few. Law professors teach the worst-case method in classes. Doctors get ready for the the “just-in-case scenario” when they order a battery of tests. Regular folks do the same on a daily basis, like when we buy life insurance or sign a prenuptial agreement.
“Be Prepared” is the motto of many professional organizations, and even of the Girl Scouts. It should be every citizen’s, too. That slogan means we should think about and also rehearse how to act during a crisis.
Preparedness helps you manage the risks and make decisions because you’ve already thought them through. It’s critical to your processing information—information that is constantly changing—during urgent events. You don’t have time to reflect during a tornado; you need to act quickly and with certainty. With self-assurance comes agency.
Say, for instance, you read about the pandemic back in January. It still hadn’t spread to the U.S. but in a worst-case scenario it could. So you researched how people coped in China. You leisurely stocked up on lentils, masks, and Purell. You arranged tele-consults with the doctor and bought board games for potentially homebound kids.
Doing so would have saved you panic buying down the line. Plus, you were mentally ready when the germ hit New York City.
A neurological component comes into play with a sense of control, says Dr. Steven Southwick. He’s a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Yale University and co-authored the book Resilience, which is considered a Bible among the disaster psychology set.
He explains that the executive region of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, has the capacity to modulate the alarm system, the amgydala. This almond-shaped part of the brain plays a role in anxiety and fear responses. It’s involved in processing memories and survival instincts.
“If you do preparation for a dangerous event, this helps the cortex manage the amygdala’s fight or flight response,” he says. “You can tell yourself, ‘Yes, I can handle this. I’m going to be OK because I’m reading expert information and advice and I’m preparing. I will be ready.”
He pointed to research by Steven Maier, Ph.D., who now directs the Center of Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. Maier found that laboratory animals showed signs of anxiety after being subjected to electrical shocks.
However, when the animals were subjected to the identical amount of stress but had control over when to terminate, it they experienced far less distress. Taking action activated a neural mechanism that helped overcome, or prevent, a sense of helplessness. SOURCE