The Slope Conundrum

Picture this: You’re having a pretty good day and then out of nowhere, something awful happens — your best friend blows you off, you find out you were denied from your favorite internship, you completely embarrass yourself during a presentation, or worse. Of course you’re upset in the moment, but what happens next?

Here’s one way of thinking about it. How do you respond to a “trigger event”— Option A or Option B?

Of course, you choose Option B. But if you’re like me, in real life you pick Option A way too often. And I do mean PICK — it’s a conscious choice. In this post, I’ll outline what I call “the slope conundrum”, which will explore why many people like me consistently slide down the tail end of the graph in Option A.

For me, Option A means a snowball effect of negative self-talk, lower performance in classes, strained relationships, poor physical and mental health, and eventually crashing and burning in a wasteland of inadequacy and self-doubt. Why does this happen? Why can’t I just pick Option B?

Here’s what I think happens: when a trigger event occurs, I completely ignore everything that’s happened before and just focus on the area within the red circle in the graph above. Not only that, but I obsess over the current SLOPE of the graph, not the position on the y-axis. I freak out and assume that if everything is changing in such a terrible way at such a quick rate at the moment, it must continue to do so. This slope must be the new norm.

I start thinking negatively, act from a place of fear and insecurity rather from a position of strength and confidence, and can’t stop worrying about how things might get worse. Ironically, this process creates the perfect weather conditions for a snowball. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. For me, the trigger event doesn’t even have to be that bad. My reaction to the event pushes the snowball down the hill, not the event itself.

Ok cool…so what can we do about it? Here are some strategies I’ve come up with:

  1. Awareness

First off, we have to be tuned into our emotional state and catch the snowball before it gets too far down the hill. The further it gets, the harder it is to stop.

2. Watch Your Actions

All I want to do when something bad happens is lay in bed and eat a ton of candy or ice cream. Not only does this waste time and get me further behind in whatever I’m doing (which I feel guilty about later), it makes me feel lazy and unhealthy. Which usually ends up pushing the snowball faster. The temporary relief isn’t worth it.

It’s so difficult to be around people after an emotional punch — it’s way more comfortable to wallow in isolation. I’ve found that spending time with others, especially people who make me like myself, does wonders for getting me back on the right track.

3. Do Something Positive

Do something positive, however small, to halt the downward spiral. It may sound insignificant, but try it. Positive thinking has unbelievable power. I feel like a lot of people roll their eyes at the idea of positive thinking because it sounds so elementary and trivial. I disagree. In my experience, mindset is everything.

Exercise is a great way to feel good about yourself and get out of your head when you catch yourself in the snowball effect. Or try doing something you love and can do really well, however simple.

It’s particularly helpful for me to do something positive toward my long-term goals after a trigger event. For example, I read articles about social justice issues when I catch myself in a downward spiral. I feel more educated, active, and I like the person I’m becoming, thus changing the slope.

4. Cut Yourself Some Slack

It’s really easy to jump on the bandwagon of beating yourself up. I’m not saying to avoid your problems — most of my personal growth has occurred after a royal screw-up. But hating yourself for what you’ve done or for what has happened to you is extremely painful and almost never productive. Check out this fantastic presentation for more about this concept: http://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene

Here’s one of my favorite moments from the TED talk above — if you accidentally cut yourself, what do you do? You would wash the wound, grab a band-aid, and take care of it for the next few days. You would never take a knife and jab deeper and deeper into the cut, right? Duh. So why do we do this with our emotions? We’ve already been hurt by the trigger event, so why do we insist on blaming ourselves, viewing ourselves as worthless, and deepening the emotional wound?

Love yourself, and cut yourself some slack. Are you doing the absolute best you can? That’s all you can ask of yourself.

5. Zoom Out

Remember that little red circle in the graph I showed? That’s called irrationality. It’s literally avoiding most of the facts and freaking out over a small portion of the data. What if you could stop, take a step back, and look at the events through a more rational lens? Here’s an example.

Option A: Wow I studied really hard for that midterm and I totally just bombed it. I thought I would be an Econ major but I guess not. Wow this sucks…I’m such an awful student. I’ll never be successful. I’ll never get a job. I obviously can’t handle the academics at this university…I don’t deserve to be here. Why are people even friends with me? Ugh what else am I going to mess up today…

Option B: Wow I studied really hard for that midterm and I totally just bombed it. I really like Econ…maybe it’s not for me though? Actually nah, I killed all the intro Econ classes and I probably just didn’t study hard enough this time. I’m gonna go to office hours tomorrow and see if I can figure out how to prepare better for the next exam. Besides, it won’t really matter in 10 years — this is just one exam. I’ll still get an A in this class, and even if I don’t, it’s such a small part of what employers will see. I’ll still get a great job and be successful. Everyone has rough days sometimes, and I guess this is mine.

Wow, two TOTALLY different reactions to an event. Notice the following:

  • the downward spiral in Option A led to huge inaccurate claims about the future, his relationships, and his worthlessness as a person. One fairly isolated event triggered everything in his life, even totally unrelated events, to be deemed a failure. He’s completely paralyzed and loses all momentum and productivity.
  • in Option B, he took a realistic approach — this was one exam and didn’t say anything about the rest of his life. He looked at the entire graph, not just the current slope. He also used one of my favorite strategies for anxiety — will this matter in 10 years? Instead of harshly comparing himself to everyone else and feeling inadequate, he gave himself some empathy. Finally, he’s already moving on — he’s not bogged down in his emotions anymore and is already taking proactive steps to do better in the class.

6. Take Preventative Measures

Emotional resilience is directly proportional to health. I’m way more equipped to handle life’s curveballs when I’m well-rested, in shape, and eating healthy — just like my body can fight off sickness more efficiently when it’s well-maintained. Taking care of yourself drastically increases your ability to cope with trigger events.

In addition, the more you practice Option B, especially with smaller, day-to-day activities, the better you get at it. You’ll be able to handle larger and larger emotional punches with grace and resilience. They’ll slow you down for ten minutes instead of destroying the rest of your day or week.

Ever heard of neuroplasticity? It’s essentially the idea that the more a mental process is performed, the deeper the neural pathways become, making it far more likely for the brain to repeat this mental process with similar stimuli in the future. But it’s entirely possible for the adult brain to forge new neural pathways, and thus rewire itself to respond differently to stimuli. So the more you choose Option B, the more it will become “muscle memory” in your brain. Pretty cool, right?

Here’s my point — you’re NOT a slave to what life throws at you. You can respond however you choose. I hope that’s incredibly empowering. Choosing Option B more often has led to dramatic improvements in my mental health, productivity, and overall happiness. Try it for yourself — I sincerely hope that you find it as helpful as I have.