Threat or Challenge? It Depends on How You Frame It

Everywhere you turn these days, the word “threat” practically slaps you in the face. Slowly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the media and in our communities are still yelling threat, threat, threat and we become even more anxious and more stressed. Worries continue to arise when you step out of your front door: will this be the day you are exposed to the coronavirus? Will my life and my loved one’s lives be threatened?

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

By using a mental tool called reframing, you can change a situation from a threat into a challenge, changing your entire response, both physically and mentally, to whatever has the potential to jeopardize your health and relationships.

Threat versus Challenge – Different Impacts on Your Well-being

A threat is something that is happening to you that may hurt you and that you have no control over. When you perceive a situation as a threat, your heart rate will increase and your blood pressure will increase. Your approach to the threat will be one of avoidance. This is called a maladaptive stress response, meaning the response is not adequate or an appropriate adjustment in behavior to the environment or situation.

A threat will cause you to become stressed and anxious, taking a toll on both your mental and physical health.

A challenge differs from a threat. A challenge is an obstacle, one that you can confront, fight, and eventually overcome. We mostly perceive challenges to be motivating and invigorating, presenting us with opportunities for positive growth. When we perceive something as a challenge, we activate an adaptive (as opposed to maladaptive) response. Though heart rate may increase mildly, blood pressure remains the same and there is no change in approach behavior.

Overall, perceiving something as a challenge is healthier for us than perceiving a situation as a threat.

Reframing Threats as Challenges

Reframing is a technique that helps you to identify what is happening in a certain situation and changing the way you view it. Here, we want to take what is perceived as a threat and view it as a challenge.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., an instructor and researcher at Harvard University, uses the following examples to illustrate the difference between looking at a situation as a threat versus looking at it as a challenge:

Here’s an example of a typical threat appraisal of the current situation similar to what I hear from distressed clients:

Because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, I am being forced to stay at home, I can’t do my work, I can’t go to the gym, I can’t go out to dinner, or do any of the activities that give me pleasure. I’ll go crazy stuck at home for another month with the kids with nothing to do.

Here’s an example of a possible challenge reframe:

Because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, the number of people being exposed to the virus is increasing through social contact. I have an opportunity to help reduce the outbreak. My mission is to reduce exposure through social distancing measures and ensuring that my family and I stay positive and practice personal hygiene. Each day we practice these measures we are contributing to the defeat of the outbreak.

By reframing your situation to become a challenge, you are empowering yourself and members of your family. It transforms you from a victim of a threatening situation into an agent in control of your circumstances. Decades of research shows that individuals who feel a sense of control over their surroundings experience less anxiety, depression, and perceived stress and illness.

Reframing a threat into a challenge will give you an opportunity to stay resilient – and even thrive in adversity – through restoring your ability to bounce back by maintaining control. Your mindset, your thoughts, and how you frame reality will help you navigate threatening situations like COVID-19 and whatever else may come along in your life.