Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz Trailer 2

In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man make their way along the yellow-brick road through a forest that Dorothy describes as “dark and creepy,” the three of them provide us with an example of catastrophizing, the kind of anxious thinking in which we assume the worst as the result of an experience that we interpret negatively.  I have included the dialogue, as well as a link to an excerpt from the film posted on YouTube, below.

Dorothy:  I don’t like this forest.  It’s … it’s dark and creepy!
Scarecrow:  Of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.
Dorothy:  Do … do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?
Tin Man:  Hmmm … we might.
Scarecrow:  Animals that … that eat straw?
Tin Man:  Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.
Dorothy:  Lions!
Scarecrow:  And tigers?
Tin Man:  And bears.
Dorothy:  Lions, and tigers, and bears … oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!

On YouTube: Dorothy Meets the Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

In this scene, Dorothy worries that she and her friends will encounter wild animals as they travel through the forest that she doesn’t like; Scarecrow frets that the wild animals might have an appetite for straw.  In their increasingly frenetic verbal repetition of “lions, and tigers, and bears” — as they skip faster and faster down the road — Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man demonstrate the obsessive, self-reinforcing quality of anxious thinking.  Dorothy’s own anxious thinking proves almost too much for words; her catastrophizing gets summed up in her gasp of an exclamation,”Oh, my!”

What happens, then, when the trio’s fears come true, and a roaring lion bounds into view?  Once the lion turns from bullying Scarecrow and Tin Man and begins to chase a yapping Toto, Dorothy gives him a swat on the nose.  Courage!  Now, when Dorothy was consumed with her catastrophizing, just a few moments before, did she pause to think how she might handle such a situation, or even that she could?  If she had considered how she wanted to handle an encounter with a wild animal, that she could handle it, should it occur, I will venture that she might well have worried less, and experienced more calm and confidence as she, Scarecrow, Tin Man — and Toto, too — made their way through the forest, and down the yellow-brick road.

For those of us with a sense of social anxiety, shyness, or performance fears, catastrophizing often looks like assuming that an experience that we interpret negatively will have dire, unmanageable consequences.  I may fear, for instance, that if I can’t remember someone’s name at a party, I will be mortified, and then stammer, blush, or otherwise demonstrate my embarrassment, and that the other person will judge me as not only forgetful, but odd, and not want to talk to me; this person whose name I forgot might even tell other people at the party, including the hosts, what an awful, awkward experience she had with me!  I’ll never get invited to another party again!  Even if we don’t go to quite this extreme in our fantasies of fear, we are engaging in catastrophic thinking whenever we assume the worst will happen, and forget to ask ourselves “So what if that happens?” or “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?”  A cognitive-behavioral response to catastrophic thinking encourages us not only to question the likelihood of whatever worst-case scenario we are imagining — our own encounter with “lions, and tigers, and bears” — but to challenge the end-of-the-world import that we attribute to that scenario, and to find ways to respond to our fears that we will not be able to manage the experience.

What have been your own experiences of catastrophic thinking?  How have you learned to challenge this thinking?

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Anxious Thinking
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Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. [...] all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don't finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”?  [...]

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  2. [...] who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation.  The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do [...]

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