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Why Some People Can't Stop Imagining the Worst

Some pessimism can be protective. Catastrophizing rarely is.

Key points

  • An optimistic outlook can quiet fear in some cases, but in others, people may choose to mentally confront it.
  • Sometimes, believing in the worst possible outcome–i.e., catastrophizing—makes anxiety worse.
  • Catastrophizing is a strategy people use to make sense of their fear.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

In the face of the unknown, interestingly, choosing to focus on either the best or the worst possibility can be psychologically protective. Sometimes, we comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that everything will work out—the cancer test will come back negative, the application will be accepted, and so on. If we successfully focus on the good outcome, we can get immediate psychic relief since the undesirable possibility is less likely to cause anxiety when not attended to.

There is a caveat: If a negative outcome is fairly probable—there is a 50 percent chance of malignancy, say—we will likely fail to banish the idea of it from consciousness. It will keep coming back, and we might make ourselves even more anxious by attempting to relegate it to the periphery of our mental view. In addition, if someone else puts pressure on us to focus exclusively on the potentially good outcome, that may be toxic positivity. But in general, an optimistic outlook can often quiet fear, particularly when the adverse outcome has a low probability.

In other cases, we adopt the opposite strategy: Instead of relegating the image of an undesirable outcome to a distant corner of consciousness, we mentally confront it and attempt to remove its sting in our own imagination. This method is reminiscent of exposure therapy. It can be effective because familiarity—even in thought—tends to reduce fear. Relatedly, nothing worse than what one expects can happen if we already expect the worst (but something better might, leading to a pleasant surprise).

Influencing the Future with Our Minds

There are other cases in which we form either optimistic or pessimistic beliefs in the hope of influencing actual outcomes with our thoughts. Some focus on the best possible scenario motivated by the desire to bring it about, and they shy away from imagining the worst. (I suspect many are unwilling to buy life insurance and very few who travel to dangerous places buy kidnap insurance for a related reason: It seems to them that they would be making death or kidnapping more likely by insuring themselves against it.)

Others may, on the contrary, in an attempt to avoid the worst scenario, fixate on it and adopt the belief it will occur. In a passage I discuss elsewhere, novelist George Eliot observes that many of us have the superstitious belief that we can make the worst possible outcome less likely by believing it will materialize. The case may be a mirror image of the belief that nothing terrible would happen because we are special. Some of us harbor the secret conviction that such things as being robbed at gunpoint or getting a cancer diagnosis before the age of 50 can only happen to others. This leads them to react with disbelief at a truly undesirable turn of events.

The mirror image of this situation is a case in which it seems to us that we show humility by expecting the worst—thereby acknowledging that we are not special. So we make up our minds to believe the worst, hoping that the universe will reward us for humbly admitting we likely have no guardian angels by arranging things in our favor.

There are, however, cases in which belief in the worst possible outcome is not protective. It does not serve to quiet anxiety. If anything, it makes things worse. This is the case I turn to now.

Born Out of Fear

Suppose your friend Lena texts you the following from the subway one morning: “I am running five minutes late for work. I am afraid I will get fired.” You text back asking Lena if anyone has ever been fired at her work for showing up five minutes late. She says she doesn’t recall any such cases, but she fears she would be the first. You insist it is unlikely she would be the first person ever to lose her job over such a thing, but she continues to sound distraught, so instead, you ask what would happen if she were to lose her job. She says she wouldn’t be able to find any other employment and would eventually be unable to pay her bills, get evicted, and end up homeless.

There is a good label for what Lena does: catastrophizing. Why is Lena doing that? It does not seem that this type of baseless pessimism is protective. It does not help Lena calm down by confronting and accepting the worst possible outcome. She does not accept that outcome at all, in fact. Instead, she herself conjures it up and trembles in fear. Why?

I wish to suggest that catastrophizing is a way of making sense of our own fear. If we feel terribly distraught for an obscure reason of a purely psychological or perhaps, physiological origin, the fear seems unintelligible to us. Instead of concluding it is baseless, we invent a basis: a possible catastrophe. Now, the fear makes sense. The case resembles that of people on a glass bridge who fear they might fall and whose fear gives rise to a belief they might fall even though they know glass bridges are safe.

I said earlier that when pessimism is psychologically protective, it can be important not to insist that the person using it as a strategy look on the bright side. But what about catastrophizing?

There is nothing toxically positive about combatting that. And the best antidote is probably reasoning with the other and letting the evidence sink in.

One may have to be careful, however. If, for instance, you cannot get Lena to drop the belief she is about to be fired by reasoning with her, it may be helpful to go along with her beliefs part of the way and tell her that if she were to lose her job and became unable to pay her rent, she could crash on your couch and stay until she finds another job. If this has the effect of calming her down, the tendency to catastrophize will lose its fuel—that is, anxiety and fear—and Lena’s belief will likely dissipate.

It is important to keep in mind also that sometimes—though rarely—there are good grounds to expect a catastrophe. The Titanic probably would not have sunk if the people on board had not dismissed the possibility of a shipwreck as too improbable. Similarly, if people express apprehension about their own emotional and mental stability, those fears should be taken seriously.

For instance, in Guilty by Reason of Insanity, psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis recounts the story of a very young girl whose fears she may do something terrible on a given day were not taken seriously by school officials. The girl subsequently stabbed her own friend. This girl had had psychiatric problems previously, but apprehension may be foreboding even without a history of instability.

Thus, in Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight, we find the following illustrative dialogue:

“I feel I'm at the end of something — everything is going to be different — and terrible."

"That doesn't sound like you, you ride every wave."

"There is one that will drown me.”

A person saying this may be needlessly fearful, but she may also be right: She may have the accurate, intuitive sense that some event will disturb her mental balance.

What looks like catastrophizing, then, may sometimes be a premonition of an actual catastrophe.

There is a final point I wish to note here. Catastrophizing may be creativity’s evil twin. Importantly, imagination is a double-edged sword. We need it in order to embark on new and difficult projects with a low probability of success: If no one ever formed the belief we can develop aircrafts—a belief that likely seemed irrational to most before functioning aircrafts—we wouldn’t have air travel.

On the flip side, imagination running wild can give rise to terrible fears, and from here—to terrible beliefs. The painter Francisco Goya has the following epigraph for one of his paintings, Capricho 43, which features a person (likely, the painter himself), asleep with his head on a table, surrounded by fantastical night birds and other creatures: “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: United with reason, fantasy is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

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