Pressure: The Weight of the Worst Case Scenario
by Jennifer Paros
Don’t spend a lot of time imagining the worst-case scenario. It rarely goes down as you imagine it will, and if by some fluke it does, you will have lived it twice.
~ Michael J. Fox
My younger son has often dealt in worst-case scenarios. I haven’t kept track of the times he’s concluded a family member or friend was dead because the person was late returning from an errand or appointment – but there have been many. Once, we were all enjoying a fire (in the fireplace) at Christmas and he said, “What if a flame leaps out and burns the house down?” When he was small, I addressed his concerns in a practical fashion – pointing out the fireplace had a screen, or that someone being delayed didn’t mean he/she was no more. Some of my explanations served to sooth, but I quickly realized his sense of security depended on the recognition that his thinking was causing the distress, not circumstances. For one can always ask an ominous, “What if . . .?”, regardless of the situation.
It’s a tendency of the human brain to follow an idea to its (possible) miserable end, rather than a positive one. And every scenario does have the potential to play out in an unwanted way, a way we want, or a mixture of both. But a mind that makes a habit and home of running the worst-case scenario is one whose default setting is in overdrive trying to avert unwanted outcomes. Assigning oneself the job of having to prevent A Terrible Thing creates pressure.
I’ve often assumed certain situations are inherently pressure filled – running a race at the Olympics, for example. But, apparently, there’s more to the story, as Usain Bolt (Jamaican sprinter and Olympic gold medalist) is quoted as saying; “I don’t put myself under pressure.” He seems to understand that he can control the amount of pressure he feels. Bolt does not mistake worry for focus and so frees himself from thoughts designed to try to stave off a worst-case scenario, allowing him to run unencumbered.
All pressure is self-inflicted. It’s what you make of it or how you let it rub off on you.
~ Sebastian Coe
Sometimes we mistake mental activity for action and feel as though we’re doing something by fixating on a subject. When my son started public school, he was given a developmental needs label. When he was six, we found an Inclusion Program, in which he was to be part of a regular classroom with extra assistance. But soon he was receiving up to five time-outs a day. I feared he would be asked to leave and pressured myself to do something, then proceeded to develop a debilitating pain in my right side. Though the situation was far from what we wanted, the pressure under which I put myself was the worst of it. I thought I was doing something via my mental freneticism, but it was just circular thinking inspired by trying to avoid an unwanted outcome. When I realized the contracted state in which I’d put both my mind and my body, after weeks of distress (and unsuccessful chiropractic care), I made myself breathe deeply again – literally and figuratively. The pain subsided and I started finding new ideas and approaches to the situation.
I’ve become more aware of when I’m putting myself under pressure – something that periodically goes unnoticed because tension can come to feel normal. Writing and drawing (two of my favorite things) can become burdensome depending on the kinds of thoughts I’ve got going. Trying to avoid writing or drawing something bad, (unconsciously) striving to preclude others from thinking poorly of my work or me – is an impossible, obnoxious job. Having to save the world, a child, or a project is a lot of pressure. But living in the world, loving a child, and working on a project is not.
When my older (other) son was in high school, I noticed he didn’t feel pressure and stress about taking tests. When asked how he managed this, he surmised it was because he thought of them as “practice.” Practice puts attention on process rather than outcome; it focuses us in the present, not on a future we have to achieve or prevent. This directs our attention away from pressure-inducing thoughts. Projected outcomes are unreal up against the reality of the current moment. Worst-case scenarios are only ghost blueprints for unwanted futures, yet they can weigh heavily on us. But the present moment offers to teach us, strengthen us, and move us forward naturally without any inherent pressure, if we’re willing.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.