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.

Where Do You Want to Go?

Where Do You Want to Go?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car.  In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well.  I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly.  Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road!  One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.”  The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while!  The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin the new year, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.  We’ll formulate goals, or resolutions.  If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits.  If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home.  So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do.  We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!”  And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives?  Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives.  Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”?  What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”?  Let me clarify.  From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not.  In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon).  For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement.  I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do.  “I really need to get to the gym today!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!”  I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind.  “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!”  Do you hear the anxious 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] …”?  How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning?  The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative?  For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation).  Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …”  For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida.  Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”).  However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym.  “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids.  Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!”  For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism).  Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety.  While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!).  For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well.  When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go.  The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well.  These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  As we begin the new year, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals.  I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful new year!


Updated: 01/12/2019

Featured image: Photo by John Baker on Unsplash