Is This Normal? “I Can’t Stop Imagining Potential Catastrophes During Everyday Situations”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
As I walk through the world, the universe within my head conjures up a different reality, filled with worry and ‘what ifs’. What if this plane explodes? What if the bump on my knee is a tumor? What if my brother isn’t picking up his phone because he’s been in an accident? What if he’s dead? What if this man I’m standing in the elevator with suddenly assaults me? What if this car flips over the railings and we drive off the Bandra-Worli Sea Link? What if our house is on fire? What if the apocalypse is closer than we think?
At various points during the day, my mind conjures up potential catastrophes. Like a Russian Doll episode, I play out disasters on a loop. It’s a full-on experience, imagining different scenarios filled with death, violence, and tragedy. I feel like I’m not entirely here, in this reality, experiencing the world like everyone else. Instead I live with one foot in a parallel future filled with potential tragedy — and it’s exhausting. I’ve spent years keeping my objectively irrational fears to myself, chalking it up to an overactive imagination. But as it turns out, a surprising number of people I’ve talked to have also experienced this kind of thinking, whether it’s imagining a petrol pump will blow up while they’re filling gas, or creating home invasion scenarios whenever they’re alone in their house. Which got me thinking — is this normal?
It’s common enough to be classified by psychiatrists as ‘catastrophic thinking,’ defined as the act of imagining irrational, worst-case outcomes. It falls within the bounds of cognitive distortions — errors in thinking where we have exaggerated thoughts that have no basis in fact, but that we believe anyway. These can range from health concerns, and social anxiety issues to generalized worries and even OCD tendencies, where you might imagine that negative outcomes will occur if you don’t engage in certain behaviours.
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Catastrophic thinking is more likely to affect people who have post-traumatic stress or anxiety disorders; a self-fulfilling prophecy that focuses on worst-case scenarios increases stress and anxiety. Depression is also related to this, where prolonged feelings of hopelessness result in a tendency to imagine that the worst will happen. These thoughts, and the stress that accompanies them, leads to an increase in cortisol levels in your brain. Also known as the ‘stress hormone,’ higher cortisol levels can result in long-term health problems like heart disease and memory impairment.
Catastrophic thinking shouldn’t be ignored, but rather, it should be managed. So how do you stop yourself from going down a rabbit hole of ‘what ifs’? The first step is learning to recognize these thoughts for what they are — catastrophic thinking. Once that’s done, it’s at least objectively clear that these are, by their nature, irrational thoughts. Then the thoughts need to be challenged, with questions like ‘Is this fear a real possibility right now?’, ‘What evidence is there that this will happen?’, and ‘What might be an alternative, more realistic outcome?’ Some people find comfort in data, like knowing the statistical likelihood that particular catastrophes will happen, to help talk themselves down from the proverbial ledge. Others who aren’t so good with numbers, like me, might benefit from focusing on the present and telling yourself that this isn’t happening right now. Instead of beating yourself up for having these thoughts, the anxiety is better served by calm acknowledgement. After all, we can take solace in the fact that going into a panic spiral is more common than we might think.