What’s the worst that can happen? A strategy for dealing with stress

As a parent we often find ourselves in stressful situations. In a matter of seconds, relative peace can turn into a cacophony of chaos and reckless abandon. A happily playing child can turn into a raging bull. Two loving brothers can in seconds become kung fu fighting wrestling ninjas. And the beautiful dinner you had slaved over can be ruined in minutes, as you become carried away trying to work out exactly what the 10 year olds  maths question is actually asking. Or maybe you are so engrossed in writing your latest blog post that all of a sudden the house around you starts siphoning out of control.

When studying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy one of the tools we used in our many role plays as Counsellor, was to ask the question

 “what’s the worst thing that can happen?”

It was a question that is useful for those that suffer high levels of stress and anxiety but also for those that find themselves in circumstances where they feel overwhelmed or agitated by any situation they feel is spiralling out of their control.

This has now become one of the major tools I use on a regular basis to help keep stress levels manageable and to prevent this feeling of being overwhelmed.

By asking oneself this simple question it gives us a chance to:

–         slow down

–         take a breath or 2 or 10

–         take stock of the situation

–         predict the outcome more realistically

–         prioritise

–         continue on with a plan to cope with or combat the possible outcomes

For example, when in the car on the way to a practise or appointment and we come across a traffic jam, I catch every traffic light or I have just underestimated the journey, I may begin to feel agitated, cursing other drivers and blaming all manner of things for the blemish on my record of punctuality. Now when I feel this happening I try to regain control by asking myself this simple question:

What’s the worst that can happen?

By doing so we can soon realise that more than likely the world won’t fall apart. Maybe we will be 5 minutes late to the doctor’s appointment. Maybe the receptionist will be grumpy with me. Maybe they will put a patient in front of me. More than likely I will sit in the waiting room for 30 minutes anyway. Tomorrow it will be forgotten about, so lets not let it ruin today. If there is something really bad that can happen, then I ask myself what is the probability of this happening? If the probability of it happening is highly likely (usually its not) then I ask myself how have I coped in the past, is there any reason why I wouldn’t cope again or at least make a valid attempt. If the worst thing that can happen is highly unlikely, then I ask myself, ‘what is most likely to happen instead?’

Basically what it then comes down to is ‘Is this worth it?’  Is it worth the stress, the anger or the yelling, and am I therefore overreacting to the situation or underestimating my ability to cope?

So when you feel yourself starting to get hot and sweaty, raising your voice, or generally getting agitated and angry, try to remember to ask yourself these questions:

  • Whats the worst that can happen?
  • What will be the consequences of the worst thing happening?
  • How have I coped in the past? What can I do to cope better this time?
  • What is more likely to happen?
  • Is it therefore worth the stress?

Do you think there are situations where you could use this strategy? Do you sometimes find yourself overreacting to the same things, or underestimating your ability to cope?

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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Timely Post!

    I am coming through a very rough patch and even though I know my personality type will focus on irrelevant details under stress, I have been so bogged down by the details I have not been able to drag myself back.

    Today I “offloaded” onto my Mum and asked for help. I felt instantly calmer and got so much achieved this afternoon as a consequence. I now feel like I can cope and can actually have my sons biurthday part on Saturday in this house we will have lived for a week and a half…

    My Mum is one of the only people I could offload on. She is like Teflon, it just slides right off her. When I am not in this crazy stressed out state I am the same. It is one of the best things I inherited from her, that and my slow aging skin (according to my hubby 😉 ).

    Next time, I’m going to ask myself “What is the worst that can happen?”

    1. Thanks Sam, it is great that you have your mum to ‘offload’. We all need someone to provide an ear and help us put things in perspective. Enjoy your son’s birthday party.

  2. God, I just blew up the kids now. Total overreaction. What’s the worst that can happen? I just have to clean it up 😉 Thanks for the perspective.

    Visiting from FYBF

    1. Thanks Laney, and we all need a little perspective now and then, but doesnt make us bad if we do sometimes ‘blow up’!

  3. Wow, this is such a good post! It’s so helpful to have a reminder every now and then!

    1. Thanks Jacki, and yes we could all do with a little reminding 🙂

  4. Yep, I use that one all the time – and have started getting my big boys to use it too. Its a very good way to deal with irrational thoughts.

    1. Great idea to get the kids to think this way too 🙂

  5. Yep, I definitely over-react, mostly when my 3 year old ignores or rebels against what I ask her to do. I am just starting to step back and assess the situation rather than immediately jumping to conclusions. I find myself projecting her behaviour way too far ahead, as though her saying know to me at age 3 is the beginning of a lifetime of rebellion and delinquency!

  6. I use this approach every year when I’m trying to decide to go or not to go to visit my parents (they live in Europe, I am in Australia, my husband can’t come and I travel on my own with two kids). As much as I want to go, I am reluctant to take the trip. Then imagining the worst possible trip and realising that I can do it, I have days like that at home. I end up going. Every year.

  7. Hi Martine, I really loved this post 🙂 I use this question all the time when dealing with my toddler son and even when dealing with life in general. Has really helped with our recent international relocation, especially in situations where I feel out of my depth (like catching the wrong bus to get home, ending up in the back of nowhere with a tired toddler in tow). Especially love the, “is it worth it?”. Use this when I can feel myself getting frustrated with my husband. Helps keeps things in perspective. ~ Sarah ~

  8. sometimes we have to make that conscious effort to pull ourselves back to regain perspective! Not to worry on the things that have not happened yet… when they happen, maybe then worry.. “whats the worst that can happen…” yep, i need to ask myself more often!

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