We all go through bad streaks in life. Generally, it is not because the universe conspires against us but because we have been taking steps in that direction, although it is not always easy to realize this and take responsibility for that chain of unfortunate decisions or indecisions. In those cases, when one problem appears after another in our lives, we can be victims of what is known as the “cascade effect”.
What is the cascade effect?
The cascade effect is a phenomenon that occurs in a staggered manner, starting from an initial event until reaching a seemingly inevitable conclusion. In the field of biology, it is conceptualized as “A process that, once started, advances step by step until its complete, apparently inevitable conclusion”.
This term is also often used in the medical field to refer to a chain of diagnostic or therapeutic events that are usually triggered by the anxiety of the patient or the doctor. In many cases these events are triggered by an unexpected result or an unnecessary test that was intended to calm the doctor or the patient.
When that chain of events begins, it is difficult to stop it and, although its consequences are foreseeable, they often end up causing organic or psychological damage to the patient. In fact, sometimes these consequences go beyond the patient himself or herself and affect his or her family, which he or she drags with him or her.
The cascade effect is relatively common in hypochondriacs, either because the doctor suspects that a disease may exist, because he or she wants to reassure the patient or simply to comply with clinical protocols. In those cases, he or she can launch a series of diagnostic or even therapeutic interventions that do more harm than good.
However, the cascade effect is not restricted only to the medical field, we often suffer it in our lives as well. This is what happens to us when we have a “bad streak” and we reach a terrible point without being very clear about what steps led us there.
The Bad Streaks: Why do all the evils come together?
A bad streak is nothing more than a period of time in which many negative events come together. In fact, it usually starts with a loss or a problem that is particularly difficult to solve, but as a result of that event or in parallel, another series of problematic situations occur that make us feel that “everything is going wrong”.
It is common for these streaks to be a manifestation of the cascade effect because the problems that began in a circumscribed area of our life spread to others, probably due to the anguish and stress that they generate and that prevent us from thinking clearly, triggering maladaptive behaviors that in turn generate new problems.
When we go through a “bad streak,” often a thought, feeling, or belief unfounded generates unease and distress, triggering a series of negative events that follow. We generally follow, without being fully aware, a regular process:
• We are experiencing an event that causes us concern and we try to do something to remedy it
• When we try to remedy it, takes place a chain of events that, the more it advances, the more unstoppable they become, as if they took on a life of their own
• The consequences of our so-called “solutions” generate new concerns and anxieties that in turn give rise to new chains of events
• We are beginning to see the negative effects of these events, consequences that will probably extend to other close people
A jealous person, for example, may notice that his or her partner has become a little estranged. Instead of thinking that he or she is in trouble and asking what is wrong with him or her, he or she immediately suspects that he or she might be cheating on him or her. That prospect alarms and distresses him or her.
Then he or she begins to “follow leads” of the alleged infidelity, develops controlling behaviors and becomes suspicious. This behavior takes away the psychological oxygen from his or her partner, so that he or she moves away from him or her. Then appear recriminations and arguments. The relationship deteriorates, not because of the “infidelity,” but because of the fear generated by the prospect of it.
In many cases, this cascade effect is due to a low tolerance for uncertainty, as revealed by a study conducted at the University of Washington. When we are not able to deal with the level of uncertainty and anguish that generate certain events in our life, we rush to do something to try to exorcise them and it turns out that the remedy can end up being worse than the disease.
How to stop the cascade effect?
Rather than thinking in terms of good or bad streaks, the cascade effect shows us that in life there are a series of causes and consequences from which it is difficult to escape once the mechanism has been set in motion. Not all are predictable or out of chance, but many times they follow a logical sequence, so that we can analyze them with a clear mind and assuming the appropriate psychological distance.
Therefore, when problems seem to accumulate in our lives, we feel trapped and we do not see the way out, it is important to ask ourselves if we are not being victims of the cascade effect. If so, we need to stop it, for which it is necessary to identify the original event.
We must bear in mind that in most cases, what generates a “negative streak” is not so much the negative event itself as the anguish, anxiety or fear it generates. Therefore, many times we react to those emotions, more than to the event.
In this way, the “solutions” we seek are not so oriented to actually solve the original problem but to mitigate that psychological anguish. That can keep the problem latent while we multiply our efforts to escape its negative consequences, thus immersing ourselves in a vicious circle.
Therefore, it is important to realize that we need to stop. If we don’t, our bad streak will probably not end and the problems will continue to multiply under the shadow of the initial event. As the writer Molly Ivins says: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”
The first step is to become aware of the emotions that have arisen throughout the process. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? Do I feel distressed? Anxious? Frustrated? Am I afraid?
The second step is to understand the thought pattern that accompanies those emotions. What is my mind telling me? Are it feeding that anguish? Maybe it’s bullying me? Or does it sabotage me?
The third step is to stop decision making. Before doing something, ask yourself if you are getting carried away more by what you feel than by reason. Is that the best strategy? Has it helped you in the past? It’s about remembering that just having some thoughts or emotions doesn’t force you to act on it.
Deyo, R. A. (2002) Cascade effects of medical technology. Annual Review of Public Health; 23: 23–44.
Mold, J.W. & Stein, H.F. (1986) The cascade effect in the clinical care of patients. The New England Journal of Medicine; 314 (8): 512–514.