Monday, November 16, 2015

The Power of Negative Thinking

If Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris were not enough, stock market gyrations, looming interest rate hikes and economic slowdowns in the U.S., China and Japan could give even the most optimistic among us reason to worry. As many of you will agree, the only thing worse than bad news is waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.” We all have our own ways of coping with anxiety, and if you or a close friend or co-worker strikes you as a glass-half-empty person, that’s not necessarily bad.

A growing body of research, such as this new
study in the journal Emotion, shows that people who manage stress by thinking the worst can be a validation of sorts for those who embrace their anxiety.
Kate Sweeny, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and her researchers surveyed 230 law school graduates frequently during the four months after the California bar exam in July 2013. What they found was that waiting for uncertain news is often distressing, at times even more distressing than facing bad news. Researchers proposed two definitions of waiting well.

1. First, people can wait in such a way as to ease their distress during the waiting period.

2. Second, people could wait in such a way as to ease the pain of bad news or enhance the thrill of good news.

First, participants who suffered through a waiting period marked by anxiety, rumination, and pessimism responded more productively to bad news and more joyfully to good news, compared to participants who suffered little during the wait. These findings substantiate the difficulty of enduring a stressful waiting period, and suggest that this difficulty may pay off once the news arrives.
“One definition of waiting well is not having negative emotions. But not going through that thinking process leaves you less prepared to receive the news. That’s the paradox, the counterintuitive part of the findings,” according to Julie K. Norem, the author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking,” and a professor of psychology at Wellesley. Norem was not involved in the study, but commented about it recently in the NY Times, Good News About Worrying.

Coping strategies are generally separated into three directions, said Sweeny.

1.       Some people sought to suppress fears. “But the more you try not to pay attention,” Dr. Sweeny said, “the more aware you become.”

2.       Others sought silver linings. “They tried to anticipate something good in a bad outcome,” Dr. Sweeny said. “‘I will grow as a person if I fail the bar exam.’ But, she contended: “That’s defensive posturing. Why would they take the bar exam if they believed that silver lining?”
3.       Others aimed for a time-tested approach: hoping for the best, bracing for the worst. These people worried constructively, doing what researchers call “defensive pessimism,” or “proactive coping.” They dive into the worry maelstrom, surfacing with contingency plans.
“Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities,” Dr. Norem said. “It drives optimists crazy. But it shifts your attention away from feelings of anxiety to what you can do to address the disaster that might happen.”

I once coached a very successful teen soccer team that reeled off 28 wins in a row. My assistant coach, a defensive genius, must have said “Uh Oh, that’s trouble!” every time the opposing team pushed the ball within 30 yards of our goal. That was his way of coping and making the right adjustments as we conceded less than a dozen goals per season during our run. Right now I’m an assistant coach for a youth baseball team that went 25-4 and won the state championship last summer. Every time we get into a close game and the opposing team puts runners on base against our pitcher, our head coach starts shaking his head, muttering, “Damn, we blew it again. When are they going to learn!” But when the kids come back to the dugout between innings, he quietly pulls them aside one by one, helps them understand what needs to be improved, and more often than not, it gets done.


Whether you’re working with youth baseball players, mid-career professionals, or aging retirees, facing your fears and working through them can take you a long way. Although anxiety is perceived as a negative emotion, researchers say it doesn’t make you a bad (or unsuccessful) person to feel it. Most of you have clients who not only invest in the markets, but manage businesses or practices they someday hope to sell and who set plenty of other BHAGS in life (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). You just can’t sail through life in these high achieving spheres without some prolonged anxiety and worry.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and set realistic expecations. We’ll get through the latest round of all-consuming agita just like we did in 2008, 9/11 and World War II.


Power of negative thinking, constructive pessimism, Paris attacks, Julie Norem, Kate Sweeny

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