Photo: Annie Edison, Community
Photo: Annie Edison, Community


How to overcome a tendency for “awfulising”

It’s easy to get “emotionally hacked” when a little thing goes wrong. But it’s far preferable to remain calm, says Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

Are you guilty of “awfulising”? I’m not judging. I’m just looking for some company. “Awfulising”, as diagnosed by the authors of a new book on coping at work, is what you do when something goes ever-so-slightly wrong and you blow it up into a catastrophe. What normal person doesn’t do this from time to time? And yet it’s self-defeating, exhausting and ugly. Plus, it’s spreading: digital overload, work pressure and rising anxieties all mean that more of us are prone to this kind of thinking.

So say Bonnie St John and Allen Haines in Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive and Energy, a new book that looks at why so many of us are being “emotionally hijacked” by minor things and driving ourselves into unnecessary rages. Everyone knows the kind of thing they’re talking about. Your boss ignores you one morning. You get some notes in an appraisal that are not very flattering. A client complains about something you did or didn’t do. Your thoughts spiral into chaos and you extrapolate wildly. You’re no good at your job. You’re going to get sacked. You are rubbish and everything is pointless.

Instead of thinking “I’m probably tired” or “This is quite a small thing, I’ll be able to deal with it easily”, you turn into a witch who screams “What fresh hell is this?” every time you get a text. This was OK for Dorothy Parker (the originator of that wonderful quote) when the doorbell probably only rang once or twice a day. Try exploding like that in a world where we are all getting hundreds of emails and messages and notifications every few hours. It’s a level of drama that is not sustainable. (Unfortunately for those of us who like to pretend that we are in Sunset Boulevard whilst contemplating our inbox.)

Distract yourself and almost ‘trick’ yourself into relaxing (instead of reacting) by using scents or music

The solution, say St John and Haines, is to take a deep breath and examine the gap between how situations make you feel (cornered, irritated, powerless) and what is really happening (a work problem that can usually be fixed). Here’s how to neutralise those overpowering moments:

Put a label on what you’re thinking and feeling

“When you find yourself endlessly running hypothetical doomsday scenarios, for example, call it what it is. Say to yourself, ‘I’m awfulising’ or ‘I’m catastrophising’,” say St John and Haines. “Labelling can put you back on track and restore some of the energy your emotions have hijacked.” Translation: don’t waste your energy on getting caught up in drama.

Interrupt the stress response

If you are literally going into panic mode to the extent that you can feel your breathing change, stop and sit and do deep breathing for a few minutes. “Set a reminder to consciously relax several times a day.” St John and Haines call this “purging tension during high-intensity episodes”. I call it “the path to avoiding a manslaughter charge”.

Try sensory reset

Distract yourself and almost “trick” yourself into relaxing (instead of reacting) by using scents or music. “Certain scents can cut right through an emotional hijack: cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg.” You cannot keep snarling if you are inhaling a vanilla latte. “Choose a playlist of favourite music that puts you in a positive frame of mind.” I’m on it. I’ve downloaded Eye of the Tiger in readiness. Let’s do this.


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Photo: Annie Edison, Community
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Viv Groskop
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