Overwhelmed and anxious? Embrace thoughts of disaster and move on
Ever found yourself worrying endlessly about bad stuff that might happen?
It hasn’t actually happened yet, but it might. Disasters big and small threaten you, your projects, your loved ones, the world at large. They play out in your mind at 3 am, ambush you in quiet moments in the shower or while waiting for a bus.
It’s easy to get caught up in an endless cycle.
When this gets really bad, you find yourself zooming in on the worst possible outcome.
This is called catastrophic thinking. It’s a common cognitive distortion, or faulty way of thinking. You selectively focus on things that have the most emotional charge. They go round and round in your head as you ruminate without any resolution.
But the sky really might fall on me
Well, sometimes bad things happen, that’s true. And in this mind set, you want absolute, 100% assurances that it won’t happen to you. Rationally, you know nobody can give this assurance. Irrationally, you take this as proof that your feared outcome is just around the corner. What can you do?
Prepare for the worst
Face that nightmare scenario head on. We do this all the time. We buy life insurance, wear seat belts, and get the car serviced. Anxieties may not fall into these concrete areas though. What if my son fails his finals? What if I never get married? What if she doesn’t like me?
Get a pen and paper, or open a document. Writing it out works better for me. Answer the following.
- What am I afraid of? State the fear clearly. Ask “why” until you get a specific answer.
- What would that mean for me? Challenge negative thoughts with alternative explanations.
- What actions would I take in that case? There is something you can do, even if that is to stop engaging and accept the situation.
- How likely/impactful is this scenario? The amount of energy you spend on it should reflect the odds and the seriousness to you.
- What can I do right now to lessen its impact? Make a contingency plan that addresses the issues you’ve raised.
By doing this you can acknowledge the fear, tie it to specifics rather than generalisations, and start problem solving. Think of your fear as a frightened child crying. First you sit the child down, then find out what the problem is. Only then can rational discussion take place. And it is the adult who brings options to the table and decides on the best course of action.
Action is one antidote to anxiety
The feeling of helplessness lead to inaction, and that digs the hole deeper. Like walking on the spot, it exhausts you without achieving any forward motion. Action helps you to escape that cycle. Having an action plan can help you sleep easy, one less worry to carry every day.
The physical sensations that go with anxiety feed more and more worries. What if the headache is a brain tumour? What if that nausea is a stomach ulcer? Our autonomic nervous system runs in the background, controlling automatic body processes such as breathing, digestion and circulation. It is always affected by our emotional state, whether we recognise it or not.
Often we have a physical sensation but are unable to recognise the emotion that preceded it. The fight, flight or freeze response of stress usually comes with a host of physical markers. Palpitations, shakes, nausea, body pains, dizziness and more are common.
We cannot control this system directly, but we can control our breathing. Slowing down breathing has a calming effect that turns off adrenaline and brings a sense of control.
Make the out breath twice as long as the in breath.
It doesn’t matter how long the count. The slow out breath is the key. Or try singing. It’s a good distraction that also forces slow breathing. Everyone knows a nursery rhyme or a favourite song.
This process can help, but you’ve been sitting a while, working things out. Time to move away from the anxiety. Get up, go for a walk, do housework, march on the spot, do more slow breathing. And then do something different.
We all have worries, but when they occupy too much headspace, it’s time to manage them actively. Don’t let them control you.