Judith Matloff

Crisis Control

Surprise: Sometimes Catastrophe Thinking Is Just What You Need!

Confronting the worst-case scenario lends control

Posted Apr 25, 2020

I just got a call from an 87-year-old lawyer friend. After 10 years of dallying, she’s updating her will. “I know it sounds silly,” she explained, “but because of the virus I’ve decided to stop procrastinating. I’m anxious about dying and taking action lessens my anxiety.”

It doesn’t sound silly at all.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, imagining the dire consequences of a given crisis and then strategizing to mitigate it actually creates a greater sense of confidence and calm. Problem-solving makes you feel more in control because you’re dealing with it.

Many professions routinely prepare for emergencies and accidents—the military, first responders, and fund managers, to name a few. Law professors teach the worst-case method in classes. Doctors get ready for the  the “just-in-case scenario” when they order a battery of tests. Regular folks do the same on a daily basis, like when we buy life insurance or sign a prenuptial agreement. 

“Be Prepared” is the motto of many professional organizations, and even of the Girl Scouts. It should be every citizen's, too. That slogan means we should think about and also rehearse how to act during a crisis.

Preparedness helps you manage the risks and make decisions because you've already thought them through. It’s critical to your processing information—information that is constantly changing—during urgent events. You don’t have time to reflect during a tornado; you need to act quickly and with certainty. With self-assurance comes agency.

Say, for instance, you read about the pandemic back in January. It still hadn’t spread to the U.S. but in a worst-case scenario it could. So you researched how people coped in China. You leisurely stocked up on lentils, masks, and Purell. You arranged tele-consults with the doctor and bought board games for potentially homebound kids.

Doing so would have saved you panic buying down the line. Plus, you were mentally ready when the germ hit New York City.

A neurological component comes into play with a sense of control, says Dr. Steven Southwick. He’s a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Yale University and co-authored the book Resilience, which is considered a Bible among the disaster psychology set.

He explains that the executive region of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, has the capacity to modulate the alarm system, the amgydala. This almond-shaped part of the brain plays a role in anxiety and fear responses. It’s involved in processing memories and survival instincts.

“If you do preparation for a dangerous event, this helps the cortex manage the amygdala’s fight or flight response,” he says. “You can tell yourself, ‘Yes, I can handle this. I’m going to be OK because I’m reading expert information and advice and I’m preparing. I will be ready.”

He pointed to research by Steven Maier, Ph.D., who now directs the Center of Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. Maier found that laboratory animals showed signs of anxiety after being subjected to electrical shocks.

However, when the animals were subjected to the identical amount of stress but had control over when to terminate, it they experienced far less distress. Taking action activated a neural mechanism that helped overcome, or prevent, a sense of helplessness.

Humans can take it one step further than other mammals by consciously reframing or reappraising an adverse situation so that the prefrontal cortex override kicks in.

What would that look like in this pandemic?

That could mean creating a routine that creates a sense of predictability and gathering information that’s accurate and less alarming. (Consult the CDC rather than Facebook friends.) Humans have to filter stimuli, and we tend to focus on the negative first. We have to be alert to danger in order to survive. At the same time, we need to combat the feelings of powerlessness that come with brooding about it. In other words, consider the worst possible scenario, but do it wisely, and try not to ruminate too much.

Maier’s partner in his earliest experiments, psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., cautions that “catastrophizing is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually exaggerated“. Seligman directs the the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and his mantra is all about cognitive shifts.

He suggests that you imagine the most disturbing circumstances, which our minds tend to do first anyway, and force yourself to contemplate the best outcome. Then consider what’s most likely to happen and develop a plan for the realistic scenario.

“This is different than wasting energy on something that’s unlikely to occur,” Seligman wrote in an email. “Rather, it’s coming up with a contingency for what could be a challenging situation.”

Being skilled and forward-thinking is particularly effective if one rehearses scenarios. When the adverse event finally happens, you can cope.

Soldiers, war correspondents, and medics all go through simulation exercises for emergencies. Much of their training for interventions hinges on anticipation and restoring a sense of order and predictability. That way, their reactions become rote. You’ve thought about it before, you have the resources, so you’re going to feel less frazzled when it happens.

Obviously the ordinary New Yorker hasn’t role-played a pandemic although many lived through the tragedy of 9/11 and witnessed the City’s heroic response. But it’s not too late for anyone to come up with concrete goals that can be achieved while in confinement.

And we can think ahead to the next possible calamity. If you live in a hurricane or wildfire zone, now’s the time to make a plan. Consider what you’d need to evacuate, and how to secure your property. Find out where you’d seek shelter and information.

That’s pretty much what my lawyer friend is doing with her will. She figured that she was at increased risk from COVID-19, so she began tackling her estate.

She’s relieved that she “went there” mentally by contemplating the worst-case scenario. She’s doing something concrete to put her affairs in order. She’s got a target to move towards.

“I don’t want the ghost of my mother haunting me because I didn’t pass her stocks and shares to the right people,” she says.