Have you ever avoided trying something new because you were so worried you wouldn’t do well at it? Have you ever come across students who were so worried about a test that they blanked out taking it? It helps to remember that while worrying is a normal emotion, we have choices about what we worry about, how much we worry, and what we do when we are worried. We can expand our choices by examining and editing an assumption that can lead to that emotion.
One assumption that can lead to worrying more than we’d like to, is “If something seems scary, it must be really awful and I must get terribly upset!” If someone believes this assumption is true and doesn’t check the facts, they may decide that things are scarier than they really are, leading to more worry than necessary.
When we believe in the above-mentioned assumption, we quickly and subconsciously trigger the “Fight-Flight Mechanism”. This physical response system gives our body enough chemicals to generate the energy and strength to fight or escape from physical threats. Our bodies aren’t always able to distinguish between a real and imagined threat, and those chemicals lead to racing heart and breath, sweating and other uncomfortable physical symptoms.
We can help our students become aware of and learn to deal with the physical effects of worrying which can arise before we are able to edit our assumptions. There are techniques such as taking a slow breath in and out on a count of four that can help with this. Other activities are offered in “Teaching Emotional Intelligence” (Skyhorse, 2016).
By helping our students examine the assumptions related to worrying, we can teach them not to respond automatically, and avoid triggering the fight-flight mechanism. We can help them understand that it is not the situation itself that is worrisome and leads to our feelings, but, rather, what we are assuming about the situation. We can teach them that they can keep themselves safe even if they are not in a state of hyper vigilance, worrying more than they need. We can help them fight their assumptions with the facts.
In order to change the assumption and the subsequent emotion, we can help our students examine the exaggerations inherent in it. Beginning with generalization, we can help them look at the word “must” at the beginning of the assumption, “If something seems scary, it must be really awful and I must get terribly upset!”. We can help them see how this is an exaggeration. It means there are no choices. But there are always other choices. We can change the word “must” to “might”. There is a possibility that what seems scary might be awful but it also might be just a little tough, totally fine, or even a good thing.
In the last part of the assumption, if we change “must” to “might”, we can see that there are other choices of how to feel when something seems scary, other than terribly upset. This can include getting a little upset or even feeling good. We can change the assumption to “If something seems scary, it might be just fine.” Rather than getting more upset than we might need to, we can look closely at the situation we are facing to figure out what the risks really are and then figure out how to effectively deal with them.
It is helpful to look at the past for evidence of times we were worried about something and our worse-case-scenario was nothing more than a scenario in our minds, never playing out in real life. It is also helpful to pause before we are affected by our assumption. In the case of worrying, when we are going to be in a situation that has triggered us to worry in the past, we can remind ourselves of the facts before we enter into that situation.
We can reinforce these healthier responses to worry with stories, books, and songs. For ideas, please see the provided lists in the “For Whom” section of this website.