“I feel a little queasy. What if it’s stomach cancer? What will my children do if I die?”
“The boss didn’t seem to like my proposal. I wonder if she and my colleagues are ganging up on me. What if I get fired?”
“I haven’t heard from my friend in a long time. Why do I always have to be the one to call? What if he doesn’t care about me anymore?”
Bad things—even horrible things—do happen to good people and cause real pain. But catastrophic fantasies like those imagined above cause useless suffering in our minds, whether there is a grain of truth in them or not. As Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."
Are you causing your own suffering with "what if" thinking?
I am amazed at how often I catch myself engaging in the negative mental habit of catastrophic thinking, so I’m not surprised that studies indicate that 60% to 70% of all our mental chatter is negative.
To turn my thoughts in better directions, I’ve come up with three quick statements to tell myself. With the help of one or more of them, I can usually calm myself and move on.
I hope they’ll help you as much as they have me:
- “It’s not happening now.” Yes, it’s certainly possible that a catastrophe could occur, but it’s not happening now. This phrase may help you see that, at least at this moment, you are safe.
- “Whatever happens, I can cope.” This statement reminds you of your own inner resources and gives you the determination to meet the challenges of life. (The concept comes from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tradition.)
- “I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop?” The first part of this statement has its origins in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. I sometimes find myself saying it with amazement: “I am causing my own suffering! Again!!” I use this phrase so much that I’ve abbreviated it to “causing own suffering.” That's a timesaver.
The question, “Could I stop?” comes from motivational studies suggesting that asking yourself a question tends to be more motivating than simply saying, “I will stop,” or the judgmental, “Stop causing your own suffering!”—which only creates more suffering. Asking, “Could I stop?” helps you see that you have a choice. Of course, if there truly is a catastrophe headed your way—divorce, a death in the family, or natural disaster—the best thing to ask yourself is, “How could I best prepare for this event?” Planning your action steps relieves your anxiety.
If you are causing your own suffering with “what ifs,” acknowledge those thoughts, tell yourself one of the comforting phrases above, and then move on. When you find your thoughts returning to your favorite catastrophic fantasies, don't get discouraged. Changing mental habits is hard, and relapses are part of the process. In fact, curbing catastrophizing is a project that can take a lifetime. Still, better self-talk will help you get past the "what ifs" faster so you can focus your thoughts on what really matters to you.
© Meg Selig, 2013
- Mental chatter. Raghunathan, R.
- DiSalvo, D. What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, New York (Prometheus Books), p. 218.
For a description of how to manage catastrophic thinking in the face of adversity, see Ron Breazeale’s blog. For tips on controlling rumination, see Guy Winch’s blog.
Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more tips on mental health, motivation, and habit change, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.