It's Okay to Lose Your Pen

April 17, 2023

Emma ShowalterMy fourth-grade classroom had a poster titled “if you lose your pen, you’ll die.”

It went as follows:
“If you lose your pen, you can’t take notes. If you can’t take notes, you won’t be able to study. If you can’t study, you will fail in school. If you fail in school, you won’t get a job. If you don’t get a job, you won’t make money. If you don’t make money, you can’t buy food. If you can’t buy food, you’ll die. Don’t lose your pen.”

While the intention was to deter students from losing their belongings, it also serves as an apt representation of a psychological phenomenon known as “catastrophizing.”

Catastrophizing is a process in which a person thinks that the worst possible case scenario will occur. For example, believing that not doing well on your exam means you won’t be successful in life, or that a breakup means you will be alone forever. It is a maladaptive emotional regulation strategy and cognitive distortion that hinders a person from imagining other, perhaps more positive, outcomes that could result from a situation instead.

There is no denying that life is stressful, especially for those who tend to catastrophize. Our ability to cope with life’s stressors is diminished when they accumulate and lead to a state of allostatic overload—or the buildup of chronic stress that results in negative well-being outcomes (Riepenhausen et al. 2022).

If we catch ourselves catastrophizing, we can work on combating it via positive reappraisal. In positive reappraisal, we re-interpret the meaning of a stressful event in terms of growth (Min et al., 2013).  It is important to note that positive reappraisal is not unrealistic or delusional optimism. Rather, when we positively reappraise an event that we would otherwise catastrophize, we ascribe a purposeful meaning to the negative event and can even use it as a tool for gaining insight on how we can do better in the future.

For instance, consider the case of not doing well on an exam. Sometimes in a difficult class, we don’t know what we don’t know, and not doing well on an exam can actually serve as a way to help us understand what exactly it is that we may need additional help on. Furthermore, not doing well on an exam provides an opportunity to connect to a professor, TA, or fellow classmate for guidance.

Those examples are only a few of the many ways that a seemingly negative and stressful event can be positively reappraised and depicted in light of its practical benefits.

Next time something undesirable happens, and you catch yourself catastrophizing, ask yourself “what can I learn or gain from this experience?”

And, above all else, know that it’s okay to lose your pen.


  1. Min, J. A., Yu, J. J., Lee, C. U., & Chae, J. H. (2013). Cognitive emotion regulation strategies contributing to resilience in patients with depression and/or anxiety disorders. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 54(8), 1190-1197.
  2. Riepenhausen, A., Wackerhagen, C., Reppmann, Z. C., Deter, H. C., Kalisch, R., Veer, I. M., & Walter, H. (2022). Positive cognitive reappraisal in stress resilience, mental health, and well-being: A comprehensive systematic review. Emotion Review, 14(4), 310-331.

Emma Showalter is a senior studying psychological sciences within the college of Health and Human Science. She is an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Franki Kung’s Conflict and Mindset Collaboratory. Her research interests include industrial-organizational psychology with a focus on training & development, motivation, and productivity. After graduation, she will be working fulltime in Employee Experience at Lincoln Financial Group. Her hobbies include reading, traveling, as well as spending time with family and her cat, Soleil.

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