- Mental Health
Are you a worst-case scenario person?
What is a worst case-scenario person?
Worst case scenario thinking is a rather common but seriously unhelpful approach to viewing the world. So what exactly is it? According to Wikipedia (yes, I know that we should not treat this as ‘gospel, but where else to begin?), a ‘worst-case scenario’is a situation where everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong. First up Google searches included a feature length horror movie with this title, adverts for Viagra on online (I wouldn’t have had impotence down as a worst case scenario but hey I’m not a man!), and a survival handbook (of the ‘in a jungle’ variety). A worst case scenario thinker though is a bit different. When presented with any problem or setback, to do, for example, with your health, job, children, home or your spouse (if you have managed to find one prepared to put up with you) you invariably imagine the worst possible outcome and then become convinced that this is what is going to happen to you. So, for example, a single event such as your ten year-old disappearing out of sight at Disneyland could conceivably lead to a whole range of different outcomes but it's quite simple: you simply choose the worst one: he's been kidnapped by a child molester - well obviously! In fact it’s far more likely, as I can vouch, that he will re-appear looking sheepish 10 minutes later.
Worst case scenario thinking and health issues
In my experience this mind-set works particularly well for health issues - I became totally convinced that I was going to end up doubly incontinent as a result of a back problem. This is not as daft as it sounds as one of my MRI scans could conceivably have indicated that as a result of compression there might be some interference with the relevant channels. That's the problem – there's always a possibility, however remote, that you might be right!
The source of my particular madness on that occasion and on many others was the Internet which has made freely available medical information from all sorts of reliable and unreliable sources to those who are ill-equipped to deal with it. You know the sort of thing: you have a headache which lasts for 48 hours and a quick look on the web is enough to convince you that you’ve got a brain tumour!
As you get older the potential to apply worst case scenario thinking to health issues inevitably becomes much more extensive. Things like becoming absent-minded, forgetting what you went up the stairs for until you get back down again and mixing up words become very common. These experiences are custom-made for a self diagnosis of senile dementia, particularly if you already dread the prospect of this: you’ve seen one or both of your own parents suffer from this frightening disease and you know from your researches that the tendency to develop it may be inherited. Now here comes the really unfair bit: as you monitor all your waking hours for symptoms of mental decay, your anxiety levels soar which in turn makes you more likely to suffer from memory loss. I read recently that people who are prone to stress, reporting this at intervals throughout their lives, are twice as likely to get dementia as those who don’t. Well I'm clearly a no-hoper then - since I can hardly think of a period in my life when I haven't been stressed about something! Unfortunately as some of you will recognise, living your life this way is no joke. It can leave you physically and emotionally exhausted. Anxiety levels soar and instead of sleeping you spend large chunks of the night rehearsing over and over again in your mind your worst case scenario.
Psychologists use a different term for being a worst-case scenario person: they call it ‘catastrophising’. I first came across this concept on the BBC’s website in the context of a programme about managing depression and cognitive therapy. At the time I was flat on my back convinced, quite wrongly, that I would never get back to normal life. If you don’t want to be identified as somebody who has seen a psychologist or reads self-help textbooks on mental health it’s perhaps better to avoid the term and stick to the worst case scenario terminology but the programme was, for me, ‘a road to Damascus’ revelation. I had spent my whole life doing this. I would love to be able to report that as a result I have subsequently changed my whole attitude and indeed become a ‘best case scenario’ person. Unfortunately in my experience self-knowledge, understanding the reasons for one’s behaviour, seldom leads to changing behaviour but at least I have a better understanding of what is going on and also, perhaps more important, know that I am not the only one who thinks like this.
So why do we do this? It’s a way of coping with the doubt and uncertainty that’s inevitable in our lives and indeed of trying to deny that these exist. The chances are that if you suffer in this way you’re a bit of a control freak who strongly believes that you’re in charge of your own destiny. In theory if the worst-case scenario really does happen then you believe you’ll be better equipped to cope with this as you've already been through the process of working out what will be involved and how you will manage it. The trouble is that in most cases the worst-case scenario doesn't happen so you're wasting an awful lot of time and energy going through this process when it's not needed in 99 cases out of 100. And if the worst does come to the worst, O.K the dementia or cancer won’t have hit you out of the blue but, worn out by the stress of it all, even before it happens, you will be in an even worse state to cope.
Strategies for survival
So what can you do?
First of all accept that this is how you think so you’ll be able to recognise when you’re ‘catastrophising’ and over-reacting. Challenge your thoughts by asking yourself about the evidence for your beliefs and the probability of your worst case scenario actually happening.
Do talk to other people about your anxieties because there’s nothing like secret fears for feeding on themselves. They should be able to help you put your fears into perspective as long as you don’t hook up with another worst-case scenario person who obviously will just reinforce them.
When you do discuss your fears with friends or families don’t be afraid to describe yourself as a worst-case scenario person. Instead of appearing neurotic you will come over as mature and self-aware and because you can apparently laugh at yourself, in time the element of self-mockery may become real. And this strategy doesn’t preclude you’re getting some feedback about whether you're being ridiculous or not.
If your anxieties are health-related do resist the temptation to go surfing the web for descriptions of symptoms, diagnoses and worst of all prognoses. Incidentally don’t allow other members of your family to offload their anxieties onto you. (As a result of tracking down information for my husband about bladder cancer I ended up more stressed about this than he did.) Not searching for all the information out there is very hard for somebody who has earned their living for many years in precisely this way but trust me, in this case, ignorance is bliss.
If in spite of your best efforts you find your mind running on its familiar tram-lines, stop! Try to distract yourself by keeping mentally active – read a book that engages you, do crosswords or Suduko, learn a language, write (all very good for delaying the onset of dementia anyway). Whatever you do don’t let your mind wander down these pathways.
Keep active! Physical exercise won’t stop your worst case scenario thinking unless you find something to do that will engage your mind as well as your body. (I listen to Spanish podcasts on my daily walk.) But it does help to get rid of some of that adrenalin produced by your being in a semi-permanent state of readiness for ‘fight or flight’.
If all this fails then I can't really better than some of the advice given in http://helpguide.org/mental/anxiety_self_help.htm. This includes creating a worry period each day when you have permission to catastrophise, leaving the rest of the day hopefully worry-free!
Finally do reward yourself for even modest progress. I have learnt to live with my chronic back problem and even stopped trying to estimate how long it will be before I need my next operation!