Happiness Habit 3: Using springboard thinking to recover from fear and worry.
When you face a setback, what happens in your thoughts?
Where does your mind go?
For most of us, our first thoughts aren’t happy or positive. This is normal after failure, rejection, or criticism. When something bad happens to me, i’ve learned feeling upset isn’t the problem. If we don’t feel upset, maybe we’re in denial of the facts.
Our lives have problems but we also have success. This is true for anyone setting goals and working to achieve their goals. This is you. This is me.
To recover fast, it’s what you do next that counts.
If i’m not careful, I turn instant worry into a smooth art. Much of my writing comes from personal experiences and reading of positive psychology and counselling research. The “oh no the world is ending” initial reaction stuff has hung around long enough for me to make a change in my thinking habits. This isn’t a one time action but a practice of new habits. It’s not easy but it is possible.
After bad news or a problem, we have two choices:
- Catastrophize and imagine the worst.
- Use a strategy to think powerfully and avoid panic or fear so we recover faster.
How to define setbacks and problems
Bad news and setbacks are defined here as common problems we face in work and home life. These problems attack our thoughts and threaten our confidence.
Remember in past articles i’ve talked about common humanity. This is understanding the commonality of problems and we aren’t alone. My hope is this brings you some comfort.
Examples of problems we face
- A friend tells you they no longer want to know you
- You’re diagnosed with an illness and the outcome of recovery is unknown
- Your boss or supervisor gives you negative feedback in an email and calls a meeting to discuss it
- You write an article for a career journal and a mentor criticizes you
- Your child brings home a shocker of a school report
- Your teenager is caught vandalizing school property
- You lose a stack of money on a purchase you regret (with no return policy).
Our initial reaction to trouble
If our initial reaction is “everything’s going to go badly” and we remain stuck in this thinking pattern, we feel yuk and risk stagnating. Subsequent emotions include fear, anxiety, depression, and disuse (meaning we don’t take action to help the situation).
What springboard diving teaches us about thinking well after bad news or setbacks
Springboard thinking is a way to visualize how to recover your thoughts and emotions after a problem so you can be calm and rational.
I’m not talking about disaster or trauma. I encourage you to find a professional (counsellor, psychologist etc) to help you after these things.
To activate springboard thinking, visualise a diver on a springboard. In competition diving, there are five phases to a successful dive :
- Approach the board
- Bounce, build momentum and take off
- Elevate, or achieve height
- Execute with skill
- Enter the water smoothly with grace
Below is a framework or roadmap to thinking well after a setback. The process mimics the stages of a successful dive.
The springboard thinking roadmap for helpful thought habits after a setback, failure, or bad news
- Stop, breathe, pause and approach the problem calmly. This is where you make the decision for hope. For example, if your child arrives home with a bad report, you may decide to use this as a chance for talking and connecting with your child, versus fearing they may fail at life.
- Bounce your thoughts in the moment. Here you are mindful about where you are now with little thought of the future. You are preparing by acknowledging what has happened and building acceptance of it. Here, researchers looked at a group of people with chronic pain. The researchers looked at two mental activities; acceptance and mindfulness and how these impact on catastrophic thinking about pain. In this research paper, catastrophizing was defined as negative thinking about actual or anticipated painful experiences. Acceptance means noticing and accepting the negative state and comes from third generation behavior therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) . In short, the person learns to accept the adverse state and commit to positive action.
The researchers in this study found when people developed “general psychological acceptance” of unwanted events, they experienced less pain and took positive action, versus avoiding activity.
- Elevate your strengths. Make a list of things you do well when hard times hit. Was there a time when you faced a similar setback or problem and things went well? What did you do to succeed and recover?
- Execute alternative thoughts. For example, you boss criticises your work. Instead of thinking “i’ve failed and now my boss doesn’t respect me”, a new thought could be “so I made a mistake, but it wasn’t intentional and doesn’t mean the rest of my work life will go badly”. This is cognitive restructuring to reduce stress and help you to think positive and helpful thoughts.
- Land well. The landing is smooth because you saw the problem with honesty. You know your abilities and you have a list of new ways to think about the setback or bad news.
Achievement creates risk and in risk, we sometimes fall. To survive the bumps and fears attacking our thoughts and emotions, we need a thinking roadmap. A way to land with beauty, grace and skill. We recover faster after setbacks though awareness, acceptance, mindfulness, and creating powerful thoughts so we can reach our goals and love our lives.
On a new page in your journal make three dot points down the page. In the first, write briefly about a setback or problem you experienced recently. Again, if this is a trauma or major event of loss, go for professional help. This exercise is more for common daily setbacks at home or work.
At the second dot point, write an immediate thought you had that wasn’t helpful to your confidence or happiness.
At the third dot point, write a powerful and hopeful thought about the event. This is a new way of seeing that is less disastrous and takes into account other plausible explanations. Activate self-compassion here.
 PLoS ref: de Boer MJ, Steinhagen HE, Versteegen GJ, Struys MMRF, Sanderman R (2014) Mindfulness, Acceptance and Catastrophizing in Chronic Pain. PLOS ONE 9(1): e87445. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0087445