As easy as А, В, C

One of the most useful ways we can interpret our reaction to a given situation is to borrow a useful model from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, a type of psychotherapy that helps people to re-interpret the way they think, especially in terms of diagnosed clinical difficulties. A, В and C refer to three distinct stages of any situation: A is for Activating event, the trigger that ignited the entire cycle. В represents our immediate beliefs about the situation, which are more often than not automatic or near-automatic thoughts that arise. C stands for consequences, which can include our feelings resulting from our beliefs or our physical, observable behaviour.

Let us take, as an example, a reaction to a poor grade on an test. The cycle begins at the point at which we discover the lower than expected result (this is the activating event, or the trigger). Such an event leads to an immediate self-judgment such as 'I'm stupid', or 'I'm useless'. These beliefs then result in emotional and/or behavioural states (the consequences). Emotions might include feelings of guilt for not being good enough or not working hard enough, while behavioural components might include the notion that preparation for the next exam isn't worth it because an assumption has been made that no matter how hard we try, the result will always be the same (,learned helplessness). This cycle might also encourage other maladaptive behavioural strategies such as self-handicapping - deliberately sabotaging any future success.

Failure can, therefore, result in a more intensely focussed locus of control, the process we adopt for attributing the causes of success and failure (see Chapter 10). While we attempt to make sense of past events in the light of their consequences, we also attempt to time travel into the future and glimpse the consequences of forthcoming events. Our activating event might, therefore, be something that lies in our future, such as a test, a public speaking engagement or meeting the new in-laws. The anxiety we feel at the prospect of the event is often more acute than the anxiety we feel during the event, and this can be observed in many students. We are essentially using the same A,B,C processes, only we are anticipating the outcome. A student, therefore, might become anxious at the prospect of failure, believing that they aren't as intelligent as their peers and feel useless and stupid. The consequences of these beliefs results in the conclusion that no matter how hard they prepare for the exam, they will continue to disappoint. Of course, these feelings are more acute if the student has failed in the past, but it can also arise with students who have a successful track record.

Safety-seeking and fear-avoidance

Many people, especially those with lower levels of emotion regulation and with a propensity towards anxiety, harbour often quite resilient catastrophic beliefs. They assume the worst will happen even if past experiences don't necessarily support such judgments. In educational settings such beliefs are often deeply entwined with a fear of failure, yet this is only part of a much larger picture. While fear of failure is certainly part of it, of equal concern is the belief that, should failure occur, we are ill-equipped to deal with it. In other words, not only might someone assume that they will fail a particular task, but they also feel that they will fail in their attempts to learn from the failure and won't be able to cope with the negative emotional consequences that could arise.

In general, we're very poor at understanding the probability of an event happening, this is why fear of crime in most countries surpasses actual crime committed. We also witness this in some parenting behaviours where children are prevented from playing beyond the confines of the family garden for fear of accident or harm perpetuated by others. Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development where he studies risk behaviour, estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died on the roads following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These deaths were attributed to the increase in people journeying by car because they were too fearful to fly, despite flying being statically safer than driving (Gigerenzer, 2004). We appear predisposed to avoid behaviours that might lead to our deaths (although there are many exceptions, including smoking and excessive alcohol consumption) but we are also just as likely to err over what is most likely to lead to our untimely demise. In a similar way, we are just as poor at estimating the consequences of other types of risk, perceived risks that exacerbate our feelings of fear and anxiety. In turn, this anxiety and the need to reduce risk, blinds us to a number of important factors, including:

  • 1. The feared event may never happen.
  • 2. The feared event may well happen, but we are generally more than capable of coping successfully with it.
  • 3. The feared event may be inconvenient, uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it is highly unlikely to be terrible or unbearable.

These fear-avoidance and safety-seeking behaviours are examples of extreme thinking and are supported by the words and phrases we use to describe these feared events. We might describe a future event as 'awful' and tell ourselves that it's 'going to be terrible'. We might also reinforce ideas by, for example, saying 1 hate parties, I always make a fool of myself,' or 'I'm no good at exams, I always fail them'. These factors also relate to our feelings of control and the ways we attribute the causes of events, which will be discussed in Chapter 10, but for now we need to concern ourselves with how such extreme forms of thinking feed anxiety through our expectations and the tactics we employ to avoid uncertain outcomes. Safety-seeking behaviours are those tactics we use in an attempt to reduce perceived risk and include requests for reassurance, checking behaviours, superstitious rituals, risk avoidance and attempts to influence others.

Requests for reassurance

These are invariably questions that we ask ourselves or others, the answers to which reassure us about ourselves or future events. A student might, therefore, ask 'Will I pass the exam?’ Or 'Do you think I'm clever?’ Younger children might ask 'Am I your favourite pupil?' We can also detect such behaviour in ourselves and other adults with questions related to how good we might be at our job, how attractive we are or other questions related to physical appearance, popularity or social prowess.

Checking behaviours

These are more pronounced and noticeable in people with specific anxiety disorders (such as those found in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) but can manifest themselves in other circumstances. They might include constantly checking that doors and windows are locked. Students might constantly check and re-check the answers to questions or continually look in their pencil cases to ensure that they have brought all the necessary equipment. We might constantly check our phones, emails and social media feeds in an attempt to avoid missing something we perceive as important, even though such things rarely are.

Superstitious rituals

These are often things we do in an attempt to keep ourselves safe and to prevent bad things from happening. Some people might carry lucky talismans or wear particular clothes for an important event, not that they truly believe that such items will protect them, rather, just in case.

Avoiding risk

We can try and avoid risk altogether by staying within our safe places. If we fear social contact then we can stay at home; if we fear people who are unlike us, we can avoid places where they might be found. In the months following the 9/11 terrorists attack people avoided flying, indeed, after any major incident there will always be some people who avoid the location or the situation in which something terrible has occurred. In a school setting, pupils might back off from volunteering answers or offering to engage in other activities. Some might even stay away from school when there is a test or when they are expected to give a presentation.

Trying to influence others

Sometimes we attempt to safeguard ourselves from anxiety by preventing others from engaging in certain activities. An insecure romantic partner might encourage their other half to only socialise with members of the same sex or parents might prevent their children from playing beyond the confines of the garden. Parents might even keep their children away from school, rather than face the anxiety they themselves feel at the prospect of their son or daughter having to sit an important exam. In some circumstances, a student might deliberately sabotage the efforts of another pupil so that they are more likely fail a test and make the saboteur look less of a failure.

EAR: Face Everything And Recover

The FEAR technique is a form of exposure or desensitisation, that is, a way of gradually exposing ourselves to a particular fear until we get used to it (or become habituated). The basic premise is that we place ourselves in a situation that is known to cause anxiety then wait until the anxiety subsides; this is then regularly repeated until the feared event no longer results in extreme anxiety. At each exposure, the anxiety becomes less severe and begins to reduce more rapidly.

For the FEAR technique to be successful we need to be mindful of how extreme the exposure is. If the event overwhelms us then we might try to avoid it or revert back to our safety-seeking behaviours; if there is not enough challenge we can become frustrated by the slow progress and the attempt can become demoralising. We, therefore, aim for manageable exposure, perhaps by lengthening the exposure gradually or beginning with less anxiety- provoking forms of the event. For example, if we wish to overcome test anxiety, we could begin with short low stakes 'quizzes', gradually building up to longer and more challenging tests.

In addition to the exposure, we can also grade ourselves on both anticipated and actual anxiety. We could, therefore, set a challenging task and grade our anxiety at the anticipation of having to complete the task on a scale of 1 to 10. On completion of the task we then grade our actual anxiety while engaged in the task. This allows us to examine how our anxiety is often influenced by our anticipation, rather than the actual task itself.

Main points

  • • Fear and anxiety are perhaps the biggest roadblocks to academic buoyancy. In addition to the pressure the stress response places on our cognitive resources, it also impacts the remaining 4Cs.
  • • Emotional, physical and behavioural responses are neither positive or negative, but rather serve a purpose. The purpose might be both beneficial and detrimental to goal pursuit, but the situation is far more complex and nuanced.
  • • Extreme athletes have mastered techniques allowing them to remain in control of their fear and anxiety, yet they don't attempt to eliminate fear.
  • • This control is fuelled by planning for both the event and any mishaps that might occur. It is also influenced by accepting that not every eventuality can be anticipated, so techniques that can help deal with uncertainty are also necessary.
  • • Fear of failure is perhaps one of the most enduring sources of academic underachievement, especially within a culture that rates exam success so highly. Stepping on that first rung of the ladder is fraught with anxiety but the fear of falling is just as pronounced.
  • • Academic buoyancy is more concerned with this fear of falling rather than a fear of failing; the push to keep going is often harder than the decision to begin and the term half-stepping is one that perfectly describes the behaviour of many students.
  • • Fear of failure is also related to our sense of control, more specifically, how we perceive our actions to be related to outcomes and our ability to change such outcomes. If we feel that outcomes that affect us are controlled by external sources, it becomes more difficult for us to view outcomes as within our control.


Gigerenzer, G. (2004). Dread risk, September 11, and fatal traffic accidents. Psychological Science, 15(4), 286-287. https://doi.Org/10.llll/j.0956-7976. 2004.00668.x

McGrath, D., & Ellison, J. (2014). Vertical mind: Psychological approaches for optimal rock climbing. Boulder: Sharp End.

Van Voorst, R. (2017). Fear! Melbourne: Motivational Press.

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