Personal Growth

The Pre-Mortem Technique Is the Best Way to Avoid Stress and Stay Calm

Bad things happen to everyone. It's not fair, it's not fun, but it's fact. While there's no way to stop tragedies from happening (yet?), there are little things you can do to keep those failures from becoming disasters. According to a neuroscientist, something called the pre-mortem technique is one easy way to stay calm in times of stress.

Tigers Yesterday, Lost Wallets Today

We've all been there: You can't find your house keys, you lost the book your sister lent you, your car got towed, and it's below freezing out. It happens, and it's awful. Getting hit out of nowhere with a stressful situation means a few things for your body. When you're under stress, you produce adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that raise your heart rate and cloud your thinking. They make you a manic mess, but it's for a good evolutionary reason.

Consider a scene where your caveman ancestor is face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger. The adrenaline and cortisol that get released will give them the tools needed to get out of there ASAP (fight or flight, anyone?), sacrificing the brain's attention to the immune system, libido, digestive system, and rational thinking in the process. The last thing their body needs at that moment is to expend energy on those things.

Don't Panic!

The days of being confronted by a sharp-toothed predator are no more, but stress-inducing events aren't going anywhere. Psychologist Gary Klein developed the concept of prospective hindsight in order to better handle stressful scenarios in the modern day. Prospective hindsight, also called the pre-mortem technique, is a way to prepare for stress before it happens. Because we can't necessarily prevent every little thing that will inevitably go wrong, we can at least prepare for it. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin discussed the benefits of this approach in his 2015 TED talk.

The pre-mortem technique goes like this: Look into the future and imagine the worst-case scenarios you may have to deal with. From there, do what you can to prevent your nightmarish visions from becoming a reality, or at least to minimize the damage they might cause. Part of the pre-mortem process is to realize that, under stress, your brain is incapable of thinking clearly (thanks, cortisol). If you've ever made a regrettable spur-of-the-moment decision, you know what we're talking about. The trick is to use your precious, stress-free time to think clearly and rationally to plan for a disaster scenario.

There are easy ways you can get your pre-mortem-ing going ASAP. Here's an obvious one: Designate places for things that are easily lost. Put your house keys in a bowl by the front door; keep your phone near the charger when it's not in your pocket. Boom. Hopefully, you won't lose those things anymore and have now successfully prevented a few future freak-outs. The pre-mortem technique can be applied to more serious dilemmas too, like medical treatments and financial decisions.

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If you liked this article, you might like Gary Klein's book "Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may enjoy. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto January 12, 2018

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