“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 in people’s lives. But catastrophic fantasies like those 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. I’m not surprised that studies indicate that 60-70% of mental chatter is negative, judging by the gloom-and-doom scenarios in my own mind. 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 these phrases, I can calm myself and move on. I hope they’ll help you as much as they have me! Here they are:
1. “It’s not happening now.” Yes, it’s certainly possible that a catastrophe could occur in the future, but it’s not happening now. This phrase may help you see that at this moment you are safe.
2. “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 idea comes from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tradition.)
3. “I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop?” The first phrase has its origins in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, which I’ll be writing about in subsequent blogs. I sometimes find myself saying it with amazement, like this: “I am causing my own suffering!! Again!!” I use this phrase so much that I’ve abbreviated it to “causing own suffering.” A timesaver.
The question, “Could I stop?” comes from motivational studies. This research suggests 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. The question “Could I stop?” helps you see you have a choice.
Of course, if there is a truly a catastrophe headed your way, such as a hurricane, a death, or a divorce, the best thing to ask yourself is: “How could I best prepare for this event?” Action steps relieve anxiety.
If you are causing your own suffering with “what ifs,” acknowledge those thoughts, tell yourself one of the comforting phrases above, and 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 through the "what ifs" faster. Then you can focus your thoughts on what really matters to you.
The three quick phrases above have saved me from days—maybe years!—of unnecessary suffering. May they work as well for you!
© Meg Selig, 2013
Sources: 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 here. For tips on controlling rumination, see Guy Winch’s blog here.
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.