What's the worst that could happen?

By mentally reviewing the worst outcomes, individuals prepare themselves mentally for a poor outcome and can be more resilient in the face of that actuality.

Put Down Your Rose Colored Glasses

As the NCLEX draws nearer, students commonly start looking for ways to boost their mood, reduce their stress and, most of all, enhance their productivity.

If you’ve taken a trip down the internet rabbit hole of self-help, you’ve probably run into your fair share of articles extolling the benefits of positive thinking and self-improvement mantras.

While these approaches work for some people, they can actually hinder success for others. So let’s take a look at some popular recommendations and who they best support.

Positive Affirmations

Perhaps you’ve heard of starting your day by repeating a set of positive affirmations. Something along the lines of: You are valuable. You are loved. You are successful.

Focusing on these phrases theoretically endows the speaker with a greater sense of worth, capability or mood. Some sources also purport that belief in these phrases can improve the individual’s likelihood of making the phrases come true.

Research (Wood) shows that the effectiveness of these statements is largely determined by the user’s self-esteem. Individuals with high self-esteem saw a small boost to mood after completing the activity while individuals with low self-esteem felt worse.

In fact, the dip in mood experienced by low self-esteem individuals was larger than the boost experienced by their high self-esteem counterparts. Researchers hypothesized this was in a large part due to the internal dissonance experienced by the low self-esteem participants.

So what’s the best advice? Do not use this strategy to instate a new belief. Instead, focus on things you honestly appreciate about yourself and value in your life. This approach can actually make you more resilient to perceived future threats (cough, testing, cough).

Visualizing Success

What about the practice of visualizing yourself in the moment of success? Passing the NCLEX without a single drop of sweat forming on your brow or getting that dream job you have been eyeing since you first applied to nursing school.

Science says you ought to pass on this one.

Image result for success

Study participants that visualized their success or fantasized about their dream job were less likely to pass the exam and got fewer job offers. Researchers propose that visualizing the ideal end may reduce motivation and preparation for upcoming tasks as well as dampen an individual’s ability to cope with and overcome setbacks.

Some research actually favors an approach called defensive pessimism. In this approach individuals set low expectations and plan for the worst. (Think of that friend you have who frets over every way a plan could possibly go wrong.)

By mentally reviewing the worst outcomes, individuals prepare themselves mentally for a poor outcome and can be more resilient in the face of that actuality. Furthermore, these individuals are more likely to prepare themselves in a way that will prevent numerous negative outcomes from becoming a reality in the first place.

.Consider this example:

The NCLEX is on the horizon. You’ve already considered the possibility of sleeping through your alarm, not practicing enough questions before the test, forgetting your ID, etc.

A defensive pessimist would therefore be more likely to set a back up alarm, put all necessary items by the door side table the night before, and complete all their full RN Mastery question suite days before stepping into the testing center.

Research shows they may worry more, but they will perform better. In fact, people who are predisposed toward defensive pessimism have been shown to perform worse when try to look on the bright side or believe their friend when they say, “It’ll be fine; stop worrying”.

Actions speak louder than words

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at methods that use your thoughts to alter mood and efficacy. But before we wrap up for the day, I’d like to introduce you to a contrary approach. It’s been around since the Victorian Era, but is far less frequently discussed. It works predominantly in short-term applications, but can be applied frequently.

Smart Fox Face

The principle is simple: act in a way that matches your desired outcome and you’ll be more likely to get there.

Laughing – even fake laughing – will make you feel happier in a few minutes. (Don’t believe it? Just watch this video.)

Need a little will power? Make a fist, flex your pecks, tense any muscle you like! It’ll help.

Struggling against procrastination? Pretend to be really into completing your first 10 NCLEX practice questions and you’ll likely find yourself suddenly motivated to finish the whole 60 question queue. Looking for more action hacks? Check out the As If principle.

About the Author

Melissa Strube is a recent graduate of Rush University’s General Entry Masters of Nursing program. She currently works as an Orthopedic RN and nursing student tutor at Rush University Medical Center. She also serves as the Elected Executive Consultant to the Student Nurses Association of Illinois.


Cohen, G. & Sherman, D. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65. Retrieved from https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115137

Jarrett, C. (2015). Brain scans can help explain why self-affirmation works. The Cut. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2015/11/why-self-affirmation-works.html

Lim, L. (2009). A two-factor model of defensive pessimism and its relations with achievement motives. Journal of Psychology, 143(3). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19455858

Newcomer, L. (2015). Why positive thinking doesn’t (always) work. Greatist. Retrieved from https://greatist.com/happiness/positive-thinking-negative-benefits

Wiseman, R. (2012). Self help: forget positive thinking, try positive action. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jun/30/self-help-positive-thinking

Wood, J., Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7). Retrieved from https://www.uni-muenster.de/imperia/md/content/psyifp/aeechterhoff/wintersemester2011-12/seminarthemenfelderdersozialpsychologie/04_wood_etal_selfstatements_psychscience2009.pdf

Rose Colored Glasses
I-5 south from the Bay Area to L.A. Photo by Monica https://www.flickr.com/photos/virtualsugar/357908606