Bracing For Impact

Interestingly, the first time I mentioned catastrophizing here was in the context of everything piling up at once or at least one thing after another after another. “It becomes increasingly difficult to tell,” I wrote, “when you are catastrophizing and when you are being realistic.”

(There’s a new for a disclaimer here: it’s possible that I’ve mentioned it before this, but that those blog posts are not yet in place here as part of the restoration project.)

At the other end of that year, I returned to the matter when I suggested that maybe some of the things we pathologize about certain brains in fact are survival adaptions of those brains.

What I realized is that for an autistic, catastrophizing sometimes merely is a form of scripting, a process through which we imagine in advance (in this case) potential negative outcomes of a situation. Our brains know enough about us to understand that the only thing worse than catastrophizing is the coming to pass of a potential negative outcome which we didn’t imagine, or for which we didn’t prepare.

Shortly after, early this year, I reemphasized the point, underscoring that catastrophizing is an example of anticipatory being a better form of control than compensatory.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I have some thoughts about the dissection of “bracing” penned by Ella Moeck for Psyche.

Expecting the worst to avoid feeling bad later is known as bracing. People report bracing to help them prepare for emotionally challenging situations, particularly in the moments before these situations occur. People brace for the worst while waiting for a range of potentially negative outcomes, such as exam grades, medical test results, or financial outcomes. Someone might also brace for the worst in anticipation of stressful events, such as giving a presentation at work or having a difficult conversation with a loved one.

The idea that bracing can be helpful is built into the meaning of the word: ‘to make something stronger or firmer’, such as a structure or a person. But research from psychology offers a more complex answer to the question of whether bracing is a useful thing to do.

In the end, Moeck suggests foregoing bracing in favor of favoring optimism, not expending energy figuring out the outcome, and opening up to others.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these strategies, of course, except for the fact that the studies Moeck uses to support them are basically aligned to a normative psychological baseline and typical neurotype.

As clear by my arguments about catastrophizing, my own lived experience tells me that sketching out the worst possibilities ahead of time often is far preferable to having to process the worst in real-time from scratch.

Moeck alludes to a strange, to me, idea of the “proposed benefits” of bracing, or for our purposes catastrophizing.

We never found that feeling negative in advance of an outcome was helpful after the outcome was known, counter to the proposed benefits of bracing.

That’s never been the purpose of benefit of my scripting catastrophe. It’s not about feeling negative ahead of time being helpful afterward. It’s about being helpful in the actual moment should the worst happen, because I’ve done a bunch of the cognitive and emotional processing ahead of time.

That sort of preparatory bracing can be the difference between successfully navigating a negative outcome or falling into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. It can be the difference between self-regulation during the worst or falling into shutdown or meltdown.

The next time you read an article like this, it’s important to go into it with a close read of your own cognitive and emotional wiring. What the normative view deems pathology instead might be an adaptation serving your survival.

Referring posts