In the Oscar-winning film, Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer lamented: “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories.”
Hopefully, most of us realize that that life can be divided into many other categories, including joyful and passionate and surprising and wondrous…along with, of course, the horrible and the miserable. What many of us also realize is that we have the ability to anticipate the best possible outcome or the worst possible outcome – and for those of us who, like Allen, more often choose the latter, life can feel like we’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Does this sound like you?
- You can instantly transform any ache or pain into a potentially life-ending illness.
- You can easily shift any scary news story into an imminent threat to you and your loved ones.
- You can magically mutate anyone else’s relationship problems into sure signs that your relationship is on the brink of collapse.
How do I know? I’m not just a professional coach. I’m also a client. Until recently, I have been ready, willing and able to turn any small problem into a devastating calamity through the power of catastropic thinking. I also know that I am not alone. There are plenty of other people who hope for the best while their minds race to the worst possible outcome.
Allen wrote in a New York Times article, “I’m not a hypochondriac, I’m an alarmist.” While he goes on in great detail to explain the subtle differences between the two, for most of us whose minds go to the darkest place first, the distinctions don’t really matter.
What does matter is what we’re doing when we let our minds wander down those back alleys into catastrophic thinking – and how to stop it. If you’re anything like me (or Allen), you commit one or both of the following crimes:
1) Overestimating unlikely probabilities
2) Overestimating devastating consequences
Both of these behaviors perpetuate our anxiety. And the good news is I have learned how to catch and release these behaviors over the years, and you can, too.
When it comes to the first behavior, overestimating probabilities, what can we learn from physicians? Medical doctors recognize that their success as rapid and accurate diagnosticians depends on their ability to reconcile symptoms with the probability of what those symptoms actually represent. If a patient walks in complaining of a stomachache, they doctors consider the most likely probabilities first – a food reaction or a flu – before they think about tumors or tropical diseases.
The principle they use is often known as “Occam’s Razor”. Attributed to the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham, the principle states, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Sir Isaac Newton adapted it read, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances,” and medical students are often reminded to consider this short and sweet interpretation: “When you hear hoof-beats, look for horses, not zebras.”
In other words, more often than not, the simplest and most logical explanation is the true one. When one of my kids’ teachers calls, the simplest and most logical explanation is someone did something (or failed to do something) that requires a conversation, not that we need to start shopping for a new school. When your boss says, “Please come see me in my office” the simplest and most logical explanation is that you’re about to be updated on a project or given a piece of feedback and not that you’re about the be fired. When my husband has lipstick on his collar, the simplest and most logical explanation is that it’s mine – especially since both he and I work from home!
And this is where the second behavior comes in: overestimating consequences. Not only do many of us anticipate the least likely and most horrible outcome, we also imagine being unable to cope with the worst possible scenario if it should happen (however improbable).
Let’s face it: if you did walk into your boss’ office and the news was as bad as you had feared (you’re fired!), what is the worst possible consequence of that news? If you’re as gifted as I am, you could go from “fired” to “living in my parents’ basement forever” in 6 seconds flat. But when you start to realize that the consequences of being fired (or of having to change schools or of getting divorced) are terrible and tolerable, you can start to breathe again. I’m not saying that the outcomes may not be just awful – they may be – but you have more strength and resilience than you give yourself credit for.
The experts tell is that catastrophic thinking needs to be challenged by more rational, logical thinking. Here are three ways to seize control of your brain before your brain seizes control of you:
1) Name your catastrophic thinking for what it is and the impact it makes. When your mind starts to wander down those dark “what if” roads, say to yourself (out loud if it helps): “I am having catastrophic thoughts, and these don’t serve me at all” or “I am making up a terrible story, and that’s all it is — a story” or “These thoughts make me feel horrible and I can change them.” One of my favorite phrases comes from a magnet I saw on the wall of a yoga studio: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
2) Remind yourself that even if the worst-case scenario should happen, you have the resources you need to deal with it. Take a few minutes to list all of the inner resources you have available (your resilience, your determination, your sense of humor) and the external resources you have available (your family and friends, your home, your job) that you could lean into if and when you need to.
3) Find the core of truth in your catastrophic thinking that needs real attention from you. If you’re constantly worrying that you’re going to be fired, ask yourself what’s actually going on at work that’s raising your level of anxiety, and make a plan to address that. If you are panicking about your marriage, ask yourself what’s really concerning you in your relationship, and have that conversation. And if, like Allen, you are sure that the Grim Reaper is waiting for you around the next corner, check your health and lifestyle choices.
It shouldn’t surprise you to read that it was (who else?) Allen who quipped: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” Rather than embrace our inner Woody Allens, let’s embody the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav who said, “Thinking is more precious than all five senses.” Let’s shift our precious thinking from what we fear the most to what we believe we are truly capable of, in the best of times or – if the unthinkable should happen – in the worst of times.