As an expert in anxiety disorders, I spend a lot of time talking with people about catastrophic thoughts. As a side note, I’m married to a news reporter, so I also spend a lot of time at home continuing the speculation on catastrophic possibilities. With all of that exposure, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to practice what I preach!
When we are anxious, we think with our “fight or flight” animal brain. If there is real danger, this is great because it keeps us safe. My goal is never to convince someone not to worry about something that deserves attention.
The problem is when our worries are unfounded. Do you ruminate about your job or your relationship, even if you don’t have evidence that things are going bad? Do people you trust who know your circumstance tell you that you needn’t be concerned, yet you still worry?
You may know in your head that your worry is unfounded, but you just can’t let it go. This is called irrational or “catastrophic” thinking. I once worked with a client who had an irrational fear that she might witness a horrific plane crash while she was going about her day. She recognized that while this was possible, the scenario was highly unlikely. Yet it continued to affect her daily decision making. On a lesser scale, catastrophic thinking can involve worrying about losing a job or failing in a relationship.
Focus On The Facts
If you find yourself worrying unnecessarily, it’s time to follow up the worries with those critical thinking skills you learned in grade school. The first suggestion I made to my client fearful of plane crashes was to look for evidence supporting her worry. We googled “exploding plane crashes.” While I will not link to that here, I will say that the statistics supported my hunch that my client stood very little chance of witnessing this type of terrible accident.
Most people have heard that it’s much safer to fly than to drive, yet for many Americans, the fear of flying is real. The odds of being in a plane crash if you are flying in America are 11 million to 1. Your energy is much better spent on making sure that you are taking the necessary precautions when driving to the airport than in worrying about the plane crashing.
Classify Your Worry
For many this may be enough to put those irrational, catastrophic thoughts back into perspective.
But what if you do your research, focus on the facts, and find that your worries are legitimate? Some anxious thoughts require your attention.
It’s time to Classify those catastrophic thoughts. These thoughts can be classified into two categories:
- Worries about hypothetical situations (“What if I get fired?” “What if I develop Alzheimer Disease?” “What if my child dies before me?”
- Worries about current problems (“I don’t have enough money to repair my car?” “How am I going to handle my child’s temper tantrums?” “My boss expressed dissatisfaction with my recent performance.”).
One of the main differences between these two types of worries is the amount of control you have over them. With hypothetical worries, you have little to no control over the ultimate outcome. You may be able to take certain steps today that help you to better prepare, but mostly, the outcome is beyond your immediate control. They generally start with “what if…” or “I don’t know what I’d do if…”
With worries about current situations, you usually have some direct control that you can exercise. For example, If you are worried about paying for a car expense, you can reconfigure your budget or find other ways to bring in money. Or if you want to have the best chances of optimal health throughout your life, you can incorporate healthy food and physical activities into your daily life.
Learn The Art of Surrender
My client could acknowledge that the plane explosion scenario squarely fit into the “hypothetical” category. But there were a handful of things that she could do to prepare. She took control of the pieces that she had control of. She decided that if she heard an explosion overhead, she wouldn’t look up and would close her eyes. We acknowledged that if this, indeed, happened she would need additional support from me and in this event I would plan on seeing her in my office.
Other than these steps, she would need to “let it go” and worry about it more fully if/when it happened. This final step of validating the fear of this catastrophic thought and allowing for space for future worry in the case of it’s fruition is what finally gave my client the peace to move on. But had she continued to struggle despite incorporating the coping strategies that she was learning in therapy, I would have suggested that she consult with a psychiatrist to evaluate whether medication should play a role in overcoming obsessive thoughts.
In the case of less drastic worries, the same formula applies. Determine if there is evidence to support the worry. Use critical thinking skills. Determine what you have control over. Talk with a trusted friend or therapist. With practice, overcoming “catastrophic thoughts” is possible.