Reassuring people can make them worry

Published on Oct 5, 2015

by Dr. Duck

I have a relative who described how he worried for several months leading up to his wedding. The actual wedding was no concern nor was the commitment. It was the wedding speech he dreaded.

He delivered the speech perfectly and breathed a sigh of relief.

I also have a colleague who complained about a sore foot. Although he had been doing a lot of extra walking, he naturally assumed he had a blood clot.

There was no blood clot or anything serious.

After experiencing trouble swallowing I started to worry that I had oesophageal cancer. Never mind the fact that this cancer affects only a tiny percentage of the population and they are usually older folk who smoke. Nevertheless, my brain told me that death was looming.

The tests came back negative.

 

Does reassuring people help?

In the face of these worries and concerns our natural tendency is to reassure others that everything is going to be ok.

Interestingly, at least in the health literature, individuals can end up worrying even more when they are reassured. Studies show, for example, that children who are reassured by their parents or nurses prior to having an injection end up becoming more distressed and worried.

It seems that individuals can feel as though something particularly awful is about to happen if you’re going to all that effort to prepare them for the worst.

No doubt many of us have felt that way prior to an event that makes us anxious. On our first day at a new job we might feel more anxious if our family members approach us with big smiles to wish us luck. You only wish someone luck if there is the prospect that things could go really badly.

How often do you wish someone luck before they go to the movies?

At work during organisational restructures and change we may appreciate and expect regular communication about what’s about to happen. This communication and management involvement is a textbook approach to managing change.

But what if this continuous reassurance leads people to think, ‘Why are they reassuring me so much? Should I be worried?’

 

Should you reassure yourself?

Humans are good at reassuring themselves in the absence of support. As children we learn to transfer the support and assurance of others into our minds so that we always have a virtual parent or friend to calm us down.

Therapy used to focus a lot on this positive self-talk as a means of helping individuals cope with the anxieties and stressors of life. If you had negative thoughts and worries you would be instructed to challenge the legitimacy of the concern.

‘Excuse me grey matter. Do you have any references to back up the claim that I will, indeed, die of a heart attack?’

But let’s look at how this can play out. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. The brain is flexible. Whatever logic you throw at yourself, it can create all kinds of concerns that you missed.

‘Hello, Nicholas, I know you are in the low risk group for heart failure and I know there’s no family history. But what if? What if?’

 

Cognitive Fusion

Experts in mindfulness give this tangle of thoughts a pretty futuristic sounding name, cognitive fusion.  All it really means is that you are engaging with your thoughts as if they were real.

Mindfulness teaches individuals to practice disengaging with their thoughts instead of challenging them.

It’s a bit like dealing with an argumentative peer or neighbour. You could invest a lot of energy and time debating with them to try to make them see reason only to find that they counter every one of your points and throw up several red herrings.

Instead, the best approach might be to simply disengage from the debate entirely.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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