The Surprising Health Benefits of 'Defensive Pessimism'

A defensive pessimist takes steps to deal with different contingencies.(Getty Images)

We’ve all heard or read about the utility of positive thinking. Many life and sports coaches espouse the concept. The book “The Power of Positive Thinking,” written by Norman Vincent Peale and published in 1952, was an international best-seller. An array of accomplished people, including Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the founder of India, country music performer Willie Nelson and tennis star Roger Federer, are credited with quotes about the benefits of thinking positively.

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words,” Gandhi counseled. “Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”

While there’s nothing wrong with Gandhi’s advice about the importance of maintaining a positive attitude, “defensive pessimism” can be a strategic approach to life that help bolsters your physical, emotional and mental health, experts say. Defensive pessimists fall somewhere between Pollyannaish optimists who assume their health issues and everything else will always work out for the best and gloom-and-doom pessimists who catastrophize events in their lives, says Christopher J. Burant, an associate professor at the Francis Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Someone who’s unconditionally optimistic may not prepare for negative outcomes, while a person who’s overly pessimistic might be paralyzed with despair and anxiety and avoid facing these challenging life events.

A defensive pessimist, on the other hand, takes steps to deal with different contingencies, Burant says. “Defensive pessimists are planners who are driven by the anxiety associated with handling difficult situations in their life,” he says. “They don’t expect a best-case scenario. They expect that many different things can go wrong and prepare for those possibilities.” For example, a defensive pessimist who’s about to undergo knee replacement surgery wouldn’t assume that his or her recovery would be quick and easy. Rather, he or she would, in great detail, consider a wide array of possibilities: Will I need to go to a rehabilitation facility before going home? Will I need temporary nursing care? Will I require prescription painkillers? If I can’t leave my home for a while, will someone bring me food? If I’m unable to drive or use public transportation, will someone give me a ride to doctor’s appointments? Do I need to create a support network of friends and family members to help me with all these issues?

“A defensive pessimist will think about all of these things,” Burant says. “[He or she] will want to cover all the bases and will have plans prepared to address all of their concerns.” By contrast, someone who’s overly optimistic might assume everything will turn out fine and not plan ahead for how to deal with challenges that may arise, says Colleen Cullen, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical director of the faculty practice organization in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. On the other hand, someone who tends to catastrophize events in his or her life may be too paralyzed by anxiety to prepare for his or her post-surgery recuperation.

A defensive pessimist might have another advantage over an optimist when it comes to facing medical issues, says Shalini Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist who practices in Wisconsin and in Illinois. For instance, being a defensive pessimist might be useful for a woman who has a biopsy that shows she has breast cancer. “The optimist may not be prepared for the results of the biopsy and can fall into depression and a period of inactivity or be paralyzed for follow up testing as her expectation did not meet reality,” Varma says. “She may not have even told friends or family, so she will not have an intact support system in case the results are not normal. She may be overwhelmed with such grief at bad results and feel guilty and shameful that she may be hesitant to tell others and have their support at this later stage.”

Defensive pessimism doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an effective strategy for many people, according to the writings of Julie K. Norem, the author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak.” Norem is a professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Accentuating the positive is not bad advice, but it suffers from the same problem that plagues ‘one size fits all’ clothing: People come in more than one size,” Norem wrote in the book. “Different people face different situations, encounter different obstacles and have different personalities.” An optimistic perspective can be uncomfortable and unproductive for some people. Defensive pessimism, on the other hand, can help many people make appropriate preparations to deal with health issues and other challenges.

People who tend to be anxious can benefit from this approach, Norem argues. “Defensive pessimism isn’t different from good planning in terms of the ultimate results,” she wrote. “It is different because of its role in getting to those results: Defensive pessimism is the process that allows anxious people to do good planning. They can’t plan effectively until they control their anxiety. They have to go through their worst-case scenarios and exhaustive mental rehearsal in order to start the process of planning, carry it through effectively and then get from planning to doing.”

In addition to being useful when facing a specific medical challenge, defensive pessimism can help motivate people to cultivate exercising and eating habits to maintain better health, Varma says. She noted that obesity in the United States is at record levels among men, women and children, and that many conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, are linked to being overweight. “Defensive pessimism can help with eating well and exercising regularly,” Varma says. “These things are not our normal state in the United States, so they require a lot of effort.” A defensive pessimist may realize that high blood pressure and diabetes runs in his or her family, and in turn exercise and eat a healthy diet to try to avoid those diseases, she says. “The optimist may not do as much in the way of preventive measures because [he or she] may believe that things will turn out fine,” she says.

Taking affirmative steps to improve your health has another benefit – doing so gives you a sense of agency. “Thinking through multiple ways something may go poorly and figuring out solutions can help people feel a greater sense of control,” Cullen says. “Rather than staying stuck in a place of anxiety or struggling to keep worries in check, [defensive pessimism] can actually serve to improve performance in difficult situations and may lead to better outcomes.”

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Ruben Castaneda, Staff Writer

Ruben Castaneda has worked at U.S. News since September 2016. Mr. Castaneda has written extensi…  Read moreRuben Castaneda has worked at U.S. News since September 2016. Mr. Castaneda has written extensively about Baby Boomer health and exercise habits, strategies for losing weight, health care issues affecting distressed communities, yoga and substance misuse. In 2018, the National Press Foundation chose Mr. Castaneda as one of 15 journalists nationwide to participate in a deep dive seminar into reporting on the opioids crisis. In 2017, the USC Center for Health Journalism named Mr. Castaneda one of 24 journalists chosen from around the nation to participate in the center’s National Fellowship. Mr. Castaneda was awarded a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fund. The grant helped support Mr. Castaneda’s reporting for a five-part series U.S. News published focusing on how the Trump administration’s immigration policies are affecting the health and well-being of children of immigrants, their parents and health care providers and teachers who work with the kids. He has appeared multiple times on “Just Ask David,” a podcast that covers health and beauty issues. Before joining U.S. News, Mr. Castaneda worked as a reporter for 22 years at The Washington Post, where he primarily covered crime in the District of Columbia and courts and police misconduct in Prince George’s County, Maryland. His 2014 nonfiction book, “S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C.” chronicles Mr. Castaneda’s struggle with crack addiction while covering the crime beat for the Post during the violent crack era. The Post named “S Street” one of 50 notable works of nonfiction published that year. Mr. Castaneda has also appeared on NPR, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and on several local TV news shows . He has written for Politico, Washington City Paper, Los Angeles Weekly and Hispanic Magazine. Mr. Castaneda is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Mr. Castaneda graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and completed a six-week fellowship at Duke University, part of a partnership with The Post. You can follow Mr. Castaneda on Twitter, and LinkedIn, or learn more about him on Wikipedia.

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