Spring is in the air and there are palpable hints we’re on the precipice of re-entry to a post-pandemic lifestyle. Yet, no one knows for sure what it will look and feel like. As a result, the number of presumptions I’m seeing people make are skyrocketing to a level that is far beyond what I could consider normal in the best of times. People are making assumptions about what their peers, co-workers, family, and employers may think and just about every other aspect of their daily lives such as cultural shifts, the vaccine, our economy, and travel. Making assumptions contributes to increased anxiety, and it’s important to understand how they can adversely affect us, so we can alter our behavioral patterns and prevent social situations from going awry.
Assumptions are future guesses we make about what we think about what a person will say or do in a particular social situation. Research conducted by Bojana Kuzmanovic of the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne, reported that we look for information that supports our beliefs because we receive a reinforcing boost when we find it. Even when we are 99% wrong, the brain looks for the 1% so it can say, “Hey, you were right about this decision.” That’s why our beliefs are so difficult to shift—the brain loves to be correct. It will give us the equivalent of an adrenaline rush, even when we are wrong.
Typically, we engage in these types of guesses when we’re feeling insecure about a recent interaction. Then we launch into a series of overthinking patterns which are focused on pre-emptive problem-solving to attempt making predictions about potential outcomes. Unfortunately, using this method to calm our nerves usually ends up exacerbating them.
3 problems with using pre-emptive thinking:
- Pre-emptive problem-solving about how a particular person will respond verbally or actively to a situation takes up a lot of bandwidths. We play entire chess games in our minds to create multiple scenarios. It’s not only exhausting, but it provokes more anxiety instead of reducing it.
- Pre-emptive problem-solving yields solutions to problems which were never problems that needed to be solved. The problems only existed in our minds triggered by an exchange in a conversation, which was not based on hard evidence. In fact, there is no scientific data or research to support using preparatory problem-solving produces effective solutions.
- Pre-emptive problem-solving changes future interactions with the individuals in question. When we engage in mental chess games about conflicts with people and assume how they will react, it will affect our next interaction with that person. Even if nothing has happened yet, it can cause confusion and the other person may question why our demeanor has changed and we’re acting differently. Once we play the chess game, it can set off a chain of changed interactions.
Here are 3 steps to avoid pre-emptive problem-solving:
- It’s critical to employ frustration, tolerance, and patience. Wait until something tangible happens in a social situation before acting on an inference. This may be hard to do at first, but with practice you can become increasingly successful. Remember to ask yourself if there’s evidence to support your concerns.
- If you notice yourself engaging in mental chess games, remind yourself of the trifecta of problems they cause, mental exhaustion, useless problem-solving, and negative social impact. All three can spur negativity and derail your ability to resolve problems in actual time.
- If you overthink a challenging social situation—don’t panic. Use meditation, mindfulness, or distraction techniques to calm your brain. Remind yourself that once you engage in overthinking, you will only create more anxiety, which will move you further away from finding a positive solution to your problem.