Catastrophic Thinking and Catastrophizing

Stop Catastrophic Thinking in Its Tracks

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!

[Enter Cowardly Lion. He roars, and bounds into view, down onto the yellow-brick road.]

— The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)

As Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man make their way along the yellow-brick road through a forest in the scene above — from The Wizard of Oz (1939 film) — they provide us with an illustration of a kind of anxious thinking that we can call catastrophic thinking, or “catastrophizing,” i.e., imagining the worse-case scenario. Dorothy worries that she and her friends will encounter wild animals in the “dark and creepy” forest; Scarecrow frets that the animals might have an appetite for straw; and Tin Man anticipates that the animals will mostly likely be lions, tigers, and bears. For all three, their fears escalate quickly, becoming almost too much for words; their catastrophic thinking gets summed up in the gasp of an exclamation: “Oh, my!”

Catastrophic Thinking Is Anxious Thinking

We can describe catastrophic thinking as a kind of anxious thinking in which we assume that an experience we identify as negative will have dire, unmanageable consequences. For instance, I might fear 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. I might tell myself that the other person will judge me as not only forgetful, but odd because of my response, and will not want to talk to me. I might also fear that this person whose name I forgot might even tell other people at the party, including the hosts, what an awful, socially awkward experience she had with me. At this point in my catastrophic thinking, I am absolutely sure that I will never get invited to another party again!

Learning from Dorothy

So, what happens in The Wizard of Oz (1939 film), when Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man’s fears come true, and a roaring lion bounds into view? The lion begins by bullying Scarecrow and Tin Man, but when he turns from them to chase a yapping Toto, Dorothy brings herself to intervene; she gives the lion a terrorizing-halting swat on the nose. With her courage, Dorothy stops the lion in his tracks.

Now, when Dorothy was catastrophizing, just a few moments before, did she pause to think how she might handle the situation, or even that she could, should some wild animal pose a threat to her, her friends, and Toto? If Dorothy had considered how she would cope with such a situation, realized that she could (even though she would have still have preferred it not occur!), I imagine that she would have felt less worried about the prospect. I imagine that she would have experienced a much greater sense of calm, courage, and confidence as she, Scarecrow, Tin Man — and Toto, too — made their way through the forest, down the yellow-brick road.

Catastrophic Thinking Is a Cowardly Lion

Even if we don’t skip as far or as quickly down the path of anxiety as Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man do in this scene, we still “catastrophize” whenever we assume that the worst will happen, and neglect to ask ourselves, “So what if it does?” or “How would I like to respond to that situation, if it happens?” When we notice ourselves starting to catastrophize, responses like these can help us question the likelihood of the worst-case scenario that we’re imagining — our own version of an encounter with lions, and tigers, and bears. Responses like these can also help us question whether such a scenario would really mean the “end-of-the-world,” and challenge our fear that we won’t be able to handle the scenario, should it occur. Simply put, these responses can help us swat the cowardly lion of catastrophic thinking on the nose, and stop it in its tracks.

When catastrophic thinking has become a bully in your own life, how have you given it a swat on the nose?



Featured image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Wizard_of_Oz_Bert_Lahr_1939.jpg

An earlier rendition of this post appeared in a previous version of The Thought Tonic Blog. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Enjoy the Holidays

Paint the Elephant: Daring to Enjoy the Holidays

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

A couple of months ago, I found myself painting an elephant.  It was one of those events with an instructor taking a sizable group of us through the intricacies of elephant portraiture stroke by stroke.  You can see the end result for yourself — this canvas will not be finding its way into any fine art galleries any time soon!

paint-the-elephant

But you know what?  I enjoyed the heck out of creating that ill-proportioned, awkward-looking behemoth.  I savored the feeling of the brush squishing in fresh paint and the whispering sound it made as it whooshed across the textured canvas.  I marveled at the colors I created on my paper plate pallet; the way such a tiny drop of white could shift the entire vibrancy of a hue.

Meanwhile, all around me, my table mates could be heard grunting and grumbling, with mounting frustration and discouragement.  Harsh self-judgments, embarrassment, comparison, and shame echoed all around.  I found myself feeling sorry for these disenchanted artists.  They were so busy holding themselves to lofty standards of elephant painting that they were missing out on all the joy I was relishing.  But I could well identify with their plight: how often have I found myself similarly criticizing my imperfect efforts when I could have been having fun with my shortcomings instead?

It was a moment that crystallized for me the importance of focusing on being present to the process over evaluating the outcome.  The difference between me and the grumblers wasn’t that I was a better painter or a more naturally cheerful person, it was simply that I had set a different focal point for my experience.  Being present to the process set me up for joy and wonder; focusing on the outcome set them up for frustration and disappointment.

The holidays are coming, and with them increased opportunities for grunting and grumbling.  Between social pressures and self-imposed expectations, we often hold unexamined, lofty goals that turn our attention toward evaluating outcomes.  Such an outcomes-over-process perspective sets us up for anxiously trying to avoid perceived failures and harshly criticizing ourselves when we fall short, both of which make it more difficult to relax and enjoy the (supposedly) “most wonderful time of the year.”

What might happen if we could apply the same principle that leads to joyful elephant painting to our holiday endeavors?  As you anticipate upcoming holiday plans, which ones are most likely to bring out anxious thoughts or self-critical feelings?  What are the outcomes on which you might tend to focus, distracting yourself from opportunities for finding joy?  Now take a moment to shift your focus to aspects surrounding the process of those activities that you are most likely to enjoy.  Imagine what it might be like to hold those life-giving elements of your experience in the forefront of your attention.  How might your experience shift as your focus shifts?

As Elizabeth Gilbert aptly stated, enjoying anything in life is often a courageous act that sets us apart.  When the expected stress of the season arises within and around us, “paint the elephant” can serve as a motto that redirects our thoughts and restores our sense of calm.

“Paint the elephant.”

Bring your attention to being present to the process instead of worrying about outcomes.

“Paint the elephant.”

Relish whatever goodness you can cling to in your experiences, even when they fall short of your hopes or expectations.

“Paint the elephant.”

Allow yourself to make mistakes, to get it wrong, and yet … to have a grand time anyway.


Featured image credit: RhondaK / Unsplash