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So far this year, people have predicted an earthquake, a flood, a nuclear meltdown, a civil war, and the Antichrist killing everyone with a meteor. It makes sense to prepare for some of these events; for example, having some food and water on hand in case of an earthquake is a good idea.

But, at some point, being paranoid about a disaster does more harm than good.

According to psychologist David D. Burns, constant worrying about a potential future disaster is a symptom of a cognitive distortion called catastrophizing. Most psychiatrists believe that this thought pattern is harmful. If one spends too much time thinking about disasters happening, they are more likely to be stressed because they are spending more time thinking about the “what-ifs” of a disaster, making them less able to focus on the positive parts of the future. While being prepared will certainly pay off if the disaster one plans for happens, there is a certain point where continuing to worry about something happening won’t make you more prepared.

A mediocre emergency kit.

A mediocre emergency kit.

There are two ways to think about a disaster that you aren’t able to stop, such as an earthquake. There’s preparation and there’s paranoia. The difference between the two is the return on investment. Preparation is having non-perishable food, bottled water, a fire extinguisher, and flashlights on hand. These are all relatively cheap goods that are useful in many situations. The ratio of cost to benefit is quite high.

Preparation starts to turn into paranoia when the cost-benefit ratio gets lower. If one goes overboard with preparing, it starts to hurt them more than it helps them. If one over-prepares, they may experience cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by holding two contradictory beliefs, unless they can convince themselves that the odds of a disaster are higher than they are. Once one is prepared for a disaster to happen, they want to justify getting as prepared as they are. So, people who have prepared for disasters think disasters are more likely to happen than they are, and worry about them too much. On the other hand, people who haven’t prepared for something to go wrong are less likely to think that a disaster will strike. I’m not advocating against preparing for disasters, but I do believe that preparing too much can be as bad as not preparing enough.

There are many examples of people overpreparing for disaster. Survival instructor Sam Coffman describes the steps he believes everyone should undertake to be able to survive a major disaster. He recommends having livestock in your backyard, a garden of regular vegetables and a garden of medicinal plants, taking classes on herbalism, practicing finding things in your first aid kit in the dark, and being prepared to use “social engineering and negotiation from a position of strength” to keep oneself safe.

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A reasonable emergency kit.

I’m sure that Coffman would fare better than I would in an apocalypse, but during the non-apocalyptic parts of my life I will be able to relax, while Coffman will be training “at least weekly, if not daily…to be able to walk many miles every day, deal with hunger, thirst, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, illness and security issues.” It may make him more confident in his ability to deal with a life-or-death scenario, but it’s not worth it to me.

When deciding how much to prepare for various disasters, one must weigh the positives and negatives of over and underpreparing. Overpreparation will lead to a negative outlook every day, but will pay off if a disaster happens. On the other hand, people who prepare an adequate amount will be able to live their everyday life without fear of a disaster, while being prepared enough to survive without losing out on the day-to-day benefits of being less stressed.

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