Do You Tend to Imagine the Worst in Every Situation?
A new study on the looming cognitive style suggests where anxiety may come from.
Posted March 16, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- A “looming cognitive style” involves assuming that ambiguous situations will yield the worst possible outcomes.
- This thinking style can make people more vulnerable to anxiety disorders, according to a review of 61 studies.
- Coping skills—like remembering that worst-case outcomes are unlikely or channeling imagination into healthy outlets—can help someone overcome anxious thoughts.
Many ordinary situations in life can trigger the fear that something bad is about to happen. Perhaps you’re about to sit down at the computer and take a look at your online statements. Something odd strikes you as you examine a series of recent transactions. You know you returned an expensive household item that stopped working, but you don’t see the credit appearing on the statement. Without that return being processed, you might go over your credit limit.
All of a sudden, you can feel your heart start to pound and you're having trouble breathing. You start to imagine that now, on top of the financial implications of all of this, something is going wrong with your body. The rational idea that the return hasn’t gone through seems like a remote if not impossible explanation.
If, in reading this scenario, you can vividly imagine that this could happen to you, it’s possible that you have what researchers call a “looming” cognitive style. George Mason psychologist John Riskind, in a 2016 review of his long research career dedicated to this topic, defines this way of viewing the world as a key contributor to maladaptive levels of anxiety. In other words, by taking what is an ambiguous situation and see it as hurtling to the most dire possible outcome, you will invariably become anxious. Your bodily reactions intensify as your mind races to this worst-case scenario.
What differentiates the looming cognitive style from other approaches to anxiety that emphasize dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs is that when things seem to “loom,” your sense of threat starts to hurtle out of control, rapidly escalating. Although it might be somewhat adaptive to try to avoid an actual threat coming your way, when the threat is an imaginary one, your panicky reaction is anything but.
A large body of research based on the looming cognitive style continues to support its role in contributing to anxiety disorders, maintaining further that this cognitive style has trait-like qualities. In a review of 61 previously-published studies whose samples ranged from over 1,000 to over 7,000, National University of Singapore’s Gerard Yeo and colleagues (2020) concluded that the looming cognitive style is “a transdiagnostic vulnerability factor for various anxiety subtypes.”
People with this vulnerability, in the words of the authors, see “excessive or chronic perceptions of threats as rapidly approaching and gaining in magnitude, proximity, or probability.” You don’t want to be caught “flatfooted,” the Singapore team point out, when the danger is real. But when the danger escalates in your mind and your mind only, you’ll become incapacitated by this sense of oncoming doom.
Do You Have a Looming Cognitive Style?
Riskind’s Looming Cognitive Style Questionnaire, which you can see online, provides a way for you to test just how much you are susceptible to these unwarranted exaggerations of threat. Here is one item from this scale, which begins with these instructions:
Read the following scenario, and then “try to vividly imagine it… Concentrate on it and imagine it in as much vivid detail as possible. Then ask yourself the questions that follow, using 5-point scales of from lowest to highest:
Suppose that you are in front of a large audience of strangers. You are speaking about a topic on which you do not know a lot. Some of the people look bored or disinterested, while others look upset. It seems that you could get a very negative audience reaction.
- How worried or anxious does imagining this scene make you feel?
- In this scene, are the chances of your having a difficulty with the audience decreasing, or increasing and expanding with each moment?
- Is the level of threat from your audience staying fairly constant, or is it growing rapidly larger with each passing second?
- How much do you visualize the audience reaction as in the act of becoming progressively worse?
You can see from this questionnaire item that people high in the looming cognitive style view the possibility of bad outcomes as growing and growing even though nothing is really changing about the situation. It’s not like this audience is about to throw things at you because they don’t seem interested or seem upset. It’s that you’re seeing these outcomes as very real possibilities.
In an earlier paper by Koc University’s Ayşe Altan-Atalay (2018), what adds to the negative effects on mental health of the looming cognitive style is “negative mood regulation expectancies,” or the conviction that you can’t control your mood state. Returning to the example of the speaking situation in the Riskind questionnaire, the threat builds and builds in your mind, and as it does, you’re convinced it will get out of control.
The questionnaire measure of this mood regulation ability used in the Altan-Atalay study involved items (reverse scored) such as “When I am upset, telling myself it will pass will calm me down.” As the Turkish authors predicted, the 326 university students (average age 22 years old) who were high in the looming cognitive style and negative mood regulation expectancies also showed the highest level of anxiety on a standard questionnaire measure of this mental state.
Having established the importance of both of these qualities to increasing people’s risk of anxiety and anxiety disorders, the next question becomes what to do about it if you’re someone high in both the looming cognitive style and the belief that you can't control your reactions as you see things getting worse and worse?
As Altan-Atalay points out, reducing “the intensity and uncontrollability of looming scenarios may increase the individuals' beliefs in the usefulness of their coping resources.” When you feel your internal perception of threat rising, according to this view, you can conquer your anxiety by recognizing that the threat really hasn’t changed and that, furthermore, you don’t have to let those feelings overwhelm you.
To sum up, imagining the worst when the worst is a reality in and of itself may be an advisable strategy. However, if you’re letting those looming feelings of doom get in the way of your everyday life, finding more productive outlets for your imagination may provide an important key to fulfillment.
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Riskind, J. (2016). Looming Cognitive Style: Description, Scoring Instructions and list of articles by Riskind on the LCS. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299888313_Looming_Cognitive_St…
Yeo, G. C., Hong, R. Y., & Riskind, J. H. (2020). Looming cognitive style and its associations with anxiety and depression: A meta-analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 44(3), 445-467. doi:10.1007/s10608-020-10089-1
Altan-Atalay, A. (2020). An exploration of moderator effect of Negative Mood Regulation Expectancies (NMRE) in the association of Looming Cognitive Style (LCS) with trait anxiety. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 39(6), 2159-2165. doi:10.1007/s12144-018-9907-6