Don’t Overreact, but Don’t Underreact

The air conditioner went out in our truck this past Sunday. The very next day, the air conditioner in our house went out, too.

As a point of reference, I live in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s August, and we’ve been under an extreme heat advisory for most of the past month. Not an ideal time for the air conditioner to crap out!

When the A/C died in the truck, I didn’t worry too much. (And no, not just because it was my husband’s truck and not mine!) I moved pretty quickly into “addressing the concern mode”. What were our options? What did we need to do to figure out what was going on? How would we get the truck to the shop while juggling work and school drop-off for our little one? What part of the budget would a repair come out of? What do I need to clean out of my vehicle so we can share it instead of each driving our own? Fortunately, it was a pretty easy list to navigate. We’re both working from home right now and since we’re still in the middle of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as I’m writing this, there’s not really many places we could be going anyway! Plus, did I mention we’re in extreme heat advisory mode here as well? Not a lot of active options away from the house…

However, when I got the text from my husband at 7pm the following evening saying, “Air conditioner is blowing hot air, it’s 82 in the house and rising,” let’s just say I wasn’t quite as calm and collected.

My brain wasted no time leaping past “addressing the concern mode” and moving right into “worst-case scenario mode”. What contingencies do we need to prepare for? What if our toddler wakes up and can’t sleep because it’s too hot? What if I can’t sleep because it’s too hot? We both have virtual sessions starting at 8am the next morning – should we get a hotel room? Will we need two hotel rooms so we can both work at the same time? What if the dog gets overheated? How the heck much is this going to cost??

As I noticed my neck and shoulders tensing up and my level of calm rapidly dropping, I was reminded of something one of my former supervisors used to say, “Don’t overreact, but don’t underreact.” As much as this saying irritated me at times – mostly when I was overreacting and wanting immediate gratification or attention – I find myself leaning on it frequently when faced with a challenge. Kevin, the supervisor who taught this to me, used it as a filter to help his team members assess their responsiveness to a situation. Were we overreacting? Simply by asking that question, it prompted awareness and often adjustment of our behavior. I’d find myself sheepishly trudging away from his office to go do a little more research or think through a better recommendation. Were we underreacting? That was also a great filter. Did I need to wave a red flag to make sure I got on his calendar that day for a quick strategy session? Was there someone else who needed to be involved?

I’ve never forgotten that saying, and it’s become one of my go-to strategies for crafting an optimal response to whatever I’m encountering. When I combine that with another powerful strategy – differentiating between concerns and worries – I am able to more effectively assess what needs to be done and move more quickly into appropriate action and responses.

Differentiating between concerns and worries requires some examination of my thoughts. Concerns are action-oriented; there’s something to be done. Perhaps I need to draft a couple of possible courses of action or do some research. Maybe I need to set some meetings or stock up on certain items. (Hello, toilet paper crisis of 2020!) Worries are something different. Worries aren’t productive. There’s no end-game, and they often become thought-loops in which I find myself stuck. When you find yourself trying to differentiate between a concern to which you should give some time and energy or a worry from which you need to free yourself so you can reclaim your energy and brain space, try asking yourself this question, “Is thinking about this more actually helping?” If the answer is yes, think on! However, if the answer is no, then work to release that thought and turn your energy to something more productive.

Don’t overreact, but don’t underreact.

- Nicole



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