The fear surrounding COVID-19 is something all people have in common on a global scale. The intense media frenzy featuring death tolls and scary statistics, the financial uncertainty, the mile-long supermarket queues and the closure of schools are all shaping our psychology.
What if I fail?
What if I’m not good enough? What if someone laughs at me? What if I get ill? What if I lose my job? What if I’m a bad parent? What if I don’t lose weight? What if I make a wrong decision? What if I don’t get that job? What if my business fails? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I have a panic attack? What if I fall? What if I forget my presentation? What if I have a stroke and can’t speak?
What if I can’t call for help? What if no one likes me? What if no one goes to my funeral? What if they don’t like the food I made? What if he thinks I’m ugly? What if he thinks I’m fat? What if I can’t provide for her? What if I can’t be happy?
What if I’m mentally ill? What if I can’t support my kids? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I upset someone? What if we get divorced? What if I regret doing this? What if I change my mind? What if I feel differently in the future? WHAT IF…….
WHAT IF? thinking is what your brain creates when you are trying to guess the future. We create scenarios in our heads about what might happen and what we might do about them.
Mathematicians would liken it to ‘best guess probability,’ and often it can be productive and help us plan and move forward. The problem is that most of us aren’t mathematicians, and if you add stress or anxiety into the mix, it’s very easy to catastrophise and blow ‘what if’ thinking out of proportion.
What if? It’s a silent assassin.
It can be easy to spot in lots of cases, but often it can be a silent assassin that creeps into your thinking in hidden ways. I was in a meeting the other day about planning a return to the workplace. The Government guidelines can be very complex, and I was concerned that even if the Government relaxed them, would it still be safe to return? Without realising it, I did a ‘what if?’ Can you see it? ‘What if we get it wrong?’ ‘What if’ it’s actually a mistake?’ Does it sound familiar?
Now I’m aware of it, I see ‘what if?’ hiding in most conversations; ‘I’m not sure that will work because….’ ‘Has anyone checked with….’ On the face of it, it all sounds very productive, but behind it all is feelings of lack of control, uncertainty and a smidge of stress or anxiety.
Research suggests some of us are born worriers.
We’re less sensitive to the brain’s stress regulators and people high in ‘what if?’ thinking, tend to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. We can overthink things, put pressure on ourselves to perform, and focus too much on what other people think of us. We feel failure, and we even can fear success! It can feel awful, too, as it’s easy to feel isolated and misunderstood.
It’s a double-edged sword because psychologists have suggested that people who are prone to ‘what if?’ thinking, are quicker to detect threats and better at lie detection. It’s also closely linked to that amazing thing called ‘creative intellect.’
Creative intellect is the kind of intelligence that enables you to be creative and find lots of different solutions and new ideas. Creative intellect is definitely a gift, but you have to watch out for the fact that because you can see SO many ways forward! You might talk yourself out of things or even get ‘stuck’ because you feel so overwhelmed. Lots of people experience this, and their anxiety and overthinking can lead them to explore ‘therapy’ routes because they perceive their strength as a weakness.
However, my creative intellect is the reason why I design and prepare all our legal contracts, proofread all our communications and work on what measuring tools we use in each of our resilience programmes.
I’m always thinking ‘what if you could measure performance?’ What if we could measure a reduction in stress?’ What if you could measure improved relationships?’ and most importantly, what if we could reduce catastrophic thinking and hone accurate decision making for the future?’
Creativity is related to both how you think and how you feel.
Emotions are the major driving force of almost all forms of creativity. Psychology research shows that excessive worrying or overthinking can severely undermine creativity in many aspects of life. Yet many people with anxiety also possess extraordinary levels of creativity.
How to reduce ‘overthinking’ to boost creativity and forward action
The biggest barrier to creative intellect is stress and anxiety. Spikes in the brain hormone Cortisol severely counteracts creativity. You are less creative when you are stressed because Cortisol blocks the brain areas responsible for ‘goal-seeking,’ memory recall and attention. It means you are less able to make accurate decisions, put things in perspective and plan for the future.
If you are a ‘what if’ thinker, see your ‘failures’ as the First Attempt In Learning. Ask yourself ‘what would I do today if it was impossible to fail?’
Hone your creative intellect and balance your ‘what if’s’ with 3 key questions:
- What would be the worst-case scenario?
- What would be the best-case scenario?
- What is the most likely scenario?
Then take action by focusing on how you can use your creative intellect to build and shape a way forward.
Understanding neuroscience to boost creative intellect
The brain chemicals Serotonin and Dopamine are the neurochemical cocktail needed to boost creativity.
Serotonin – Low levels make you anxious and fearful. High levels make you calm and relaxed.
Dopamine – Low levels feed boredom and disinterest. High levels motivate you to explore and create new ways forward.
Dopamine makes us want things, it’s the mother of ‘invention.’ It shapes our brain into ‘exploration’ mode, meaning we are much more comfortable with uncertainty and creating new ways forward.
Using the 3 key questions boosts your creativity brain chemicals because ……
- They drive exploration – they get you to ‘dare to dream,’ while planning for the most likely outcome, which in turn boosts a sense of calm and control.
- Focus on accurate decision making and planning for the future. – People with high levels of creative intellect tend to get distracted because their brain doesn’t appear to filter out irrelevant information. Their brain processes far more information than the average person! The 3 questions widen the scope of attention that enables you to take note of more subtleties in your environment.
As someone who is a born worrier and an over-thinking, these key questions are my staple diet in reducing my anxiety and leveraging my creative intellect.