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In this series, you and I are looking at the four main roads out of anxiety and depression. The third road is,
Find the Right RATIO.
This a fundamentally different approach than the first two roads, although it’s grounded in the same form of psychotherapy: cognitive behavioral therapy.
But in this third road, we’re viewing our stress as economists, trying to understand the price we pay, compared to the value we gain, when we choose to view a situation in a certain way.
So the ratio we’re talking about here is a cost-benefit RATIO.
Here’s an example.
Sometimes we jump to conclusions by assuming we know what’s going to happen. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I’ve said stuff to myself like, “I just know this is going to end up a mess.”
Maybe you’ve said things like this, too. Maybe you’ve said:
- “I just know I’m going to fail.”
- “I just know we’re going to break up.”
- “I just know I’m never going to get over my depression and anxiety.”
But assumptions are only that: assumptions. They’re our best guess at what’s happening.
None of us are perfect mind-readers or fortune-tellers, which means there’s bound to be a gap between what we think is reality and reality itself.
In that gap, there are only three possibilities:
What we think is right.
What we think is wrong.
The truth is somewhere in the middle.
The uncertainty in this gap gives us the freedom to choose what to believe. And we can base our decision on what will cost the least pain and give the most peace.
So, what’s the “benefit” of jumping to conclusions?
Maybe we feel they somehow brace us for the future. If we see disaster coming, like a massive failure, or a breakup, then we won’t be blindsided by it, right?
But of course, along with these “benefits” come the costs: worry, conflict, and living under the heavy shadow of anxiety most of the time.
So I suppose it’s worth asking,
Are the benefits worth the cost?
Especially if our conclusions are wrong?
I’m definitely not the first to make a connection between believing the best and having the most peace of mind. Over a century ago, James Garfield said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Nearly eighteen centuries before that, Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD) wrote, “There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”
Here’s another example. Sometimes when we mess up at something, we call ourselves nasty names like “loser” or “failure.”
And we’re tempted to think there’s some benefit in doing this. Maybe we think severe self-criticism will somehow motivate us not be a failure or a loser, to try harder and become successful.
To that I would say, there’s a heavy cost involved. Brutal name-calling leads to shame and poor self-esteem. Rather than lifting us up, research shows that this drives us downward into worthlessness and despair. If we want motivation, labelling ourselves a “loser” or “failure” will move us in the wrong direction.
And I would say, there’s a better way: We can focus on solving our problems rather than criticizing ourselves for having them. Focusing on the lessons our failures provide is a great motivator to do better next time.
Finding the right RATIO involves asking questions like:
- What benefits do I think I’ll get from
believing this way?
- Do I think it gives me special insight or information?
- Do I think it will motivate me?
What evidence do I have for any of this?
- What costs will I pay for believing this
- Could I become even more stressed and anxious?
- Could I become less motivated to try to fix things?
I may never know if I am right or wrong.
But do I think the cost will be worth it if I’m wrong?
Will they even be worth it if I am right?
The third road out of anxiety and depression is learning to consider the relative costs and benefits of our thinking.
This isn’t always easy, especially if we’re used to thinking negatively.
The trick is to stay with it in order to reap the long-term benefits: peace of mind and a healthier attitude toward the stresses of life.Become a Patron!
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.