Bad things even horrible things do happen to good people and cause real pain. But catastrophic fantasies like those imagined above cause useless suffering in our minds, whether there is a grain of truth in them or not. As Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Are you causing your own suffering with “what if” thinking?
I am amazed at how often I catch myself engaging in the negative mental habit of catastrophic thinking, so I’m not surprised that studies indicate that 60% to 70% of all our mental chatter is negative.
To turn my thoughts in better directions, I’ve come up with three quick statements to tell myself. With the help of one or more of them, I can usually calm myself and move on.
I hope they’ll help you as much as they have me:
- “It’s not happening now.” Yes, it’s certainly possible that a catastrophe could occur, but it’s not happening now. This phrase may help you see that, at least at this moment, you are safe.
- “Whatever happens, I can cope.” This statement reminds you of your own inner resources and gives you the determination to meet the challenges of life. (The concept comes from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tradition.)
- “I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop?” The first part of this statement has its origins in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. I sometimes find myself saying it with amazement: “I am causing my own suffering! Again!!” I use this phrase so much that I’ve abbreviated it to “causing own suffering.” That’s a time saver.
If you are causing your own suffering with “what ifs,” acknowledge those thoughts, tell yourself one of the comforting phrases above, and then move on. When you find your thoughts returning to your favorite catastrophic fantasies, don’t get discouraged. Changing mental habits is hard, and relapses are part of the process. In fact, curbing catastrophizing is a project that can take a lifetime. Still, better self-talk will help you get past the “what ifs” faster so you can focus your thoughts on what really matters to you.