If contact with peanut dust can trigger anaphylaxis in your child (or yourself), managing anxiety may seem more difficult than managing the allergy.
How can you stop the pessimistic, worst-case-scenario thoughts that go through your mind as your nut-allergic child goes off to school or a birthday party?
According to Wellesley professor and psychologist Julie Norem, negativism has its place. While some individuals are innately optimistic, others thrive by using what Norem calls “defensive pessimism” to curb anxiety and manage uncertainty.
Norem studied people who seemed to succeed because of their pessimism. She determined that defensive pessimism is a process by which negative thinking changes anxiety into action.
Defensive pessimism is not an ultimate solution to problems and like any strategy it has pros and cons. Yet, for some people, it is a strategy that allows them to face their fears – to confront instead of deny their feelings.
Two Strategies That Work
Both strategic optimists and defensive pessimists can be high-functioning and successful people. One way they differ is in their approach to achieving a goal and dealing with the accompanying anxiety.
- Strategic optimists decide what needs to be done and set about accomplishing tasks without much reflection or angst. If something goes amiss, optimists shrug, regroup, and go onto the next chosen step.
- Defensive pessimists set low expectations and then think over all the dire outcomes imaginable. They typically rehearse all possibilities until they know everything necessary to do for a shot at success. Defensive pessimists continue to worry and fend off disasters as projects progress.
Defensive pessimists can seem negative and off-putting to others. Yet, pessimism is how they deal with anxiety so it does not keep them from doing what they want or need to accomplish, such as managing a severe
Managing Allergy Anxiety
If you are struggling with anxiety and negativism about your own or your child’s food allergy, Norem’s book may offer a couple things.
First, it validates and gives purpose to a nervous-Nellie approach to uncertainty – an approach often considered a negative. Second, the book shares strategies for capitalizing on defensive pessimism, should that be your natural coping style.
Looking at the positive side of negativity may also help couples who struggle with having opposite life strategies. It is difficult for strategic optimists to understand why pessimists waste energy on countless "what-ifs". However, Norem’s perception of defensive pessimism makes this positively negative strategy understandable to others.
Source: Norem, Julie, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Basic Books, 2002. Photo credit: Son of Groucho / flickr creative commons