I used to have a dear friend, who I also once worked for. At least once a week, you’d hear her voice energetically proclaiming “This is a DISASTER!” And suddenly we were all expected to rush about and do something. But more often than not, there was no disaster. Just disaster thinking.
So what is disaster thinking? It’s when your mind grabs hold of a thought and pumps worst case scenarios and negative thoughts into it. And so whatever is really happening blows up way out of proportion. With little or no evidence to support the imagined disastrous conclusion.
The Queen of Disaster Thinking
Strangely enough, my former boss and friend was also an extremely innovative and dynamic leader. She created many important projects that changed kids’ lives. Perhaps it was that same wonderfully imaginative mind that got working overtime when things went wrong.
Or maybe it was just a strong, unyielding need to feel in control. And anything disrupting the balance would set off her internal alarm. Despite countless evidence that we could handle problems that arose, each one became frozen in time. THIS one was the absolute, unsolvable disaster for sure.
The thing is, in the moment that disaster thinking sets in, our brains are very certain of impending doom. I found this quote about what they call catastrophic thinking on the Psychology Today website:
“Our minds are very effective at creating catastrophic thoughts – and they can leave us very convinced.”
Unleashing the big “what if?”
For whatever reason, a sudden gush of “what if” thoughts get unleashed. We see this trigger event as the beginning of all kinds of things that MIGHT happen. But we get caught up in the “might happen” as if it’s a truthful forecast of our future.
Most of you have probably experienced this at some point of your lives. Some new physical symptom that comes up, and suddenly you are sure you have a deadly illness. Or at least you get caught in all the what ifs that such a symptom might mean. How many times have you rushed to Google something like that and gotten scared by all the search result what ifs!
Workplaces seem to be a hotbed of disaster thinking. No matter what else is going on, THIS is the fire you have to put out immediately. Even if what you’re working on might prevent future fires. Even if the new thing is not all that critical after all. If the boss says it is, off we go to find an extinguisher.
So what’s really going on inside our heads?
Our brains are amazingly complex structures. While one part is busy moving your arm, another part is carefully calculating and assessing space around you to make sure your arm has room to move. And another part is busy watching for anything that might go wrong.
Enter the amygdala, a part of your brain’s limbic system (actually there are two of them) that handles emotions and checks to see if you are ok. It’s poised, from earliest times, to make sure you survive. In some ways, it’s like a fire alarm — standing guard to detect anything that needs a quick response.
And triggering a fear response is one of the things the amygdala does best. It also plays a role in sexual arousal and generating other emotions. But for our purpose today, we’ll stick with the part where the “fear” alarm goes off. And then, the creative disaster thinking brain can run wild with all kinds of what ifs. As my friend’s brain so often did.
So what can you do about disaster thinking?
One of the most effective tools we have, when we get caught up in emotion of any kind, is awareness. Just taking a few deep breaths and catching yourself in the moment can help. Also, recognizing that this is something you have done before. No self-judgment — that only adds emotion. Just a gentle self-reminder. “I’m doing it again.”
Maybe even give it a safe or fun name to say to yourself whenever it happens. “Here’s Steve again.” Even the smile that might bring can help. Something as simple as this can lower the intensity and help get you back into the moment, so you can do what’s really needed.
Then, try to look at all the what ifs you’re adding. Are any of them happening right this minute? If yes, handle it. If not, assure yourself you will do what you can now. And you will find a way to handle anything else that arises later.
Most of all, it helps to break the scary whole into manageable parts. Come up with action steps. Those you can take right now. And some you may need to take later. And then focus on what you can do at this time to begin solving the problem. Think of it as an experiment when you first begin. Slowly you can find a useful formula that works for you!
What if it’s your boss who does this?
That’s a little trickier. This is your boss after all, and you don’t want to accuse them of disaster thinking. Also, when a person is caught up in their emotions and the alarm in their brain is saying “Danger Will Robinson”, logic doesn’t always get through.
But you might be able to find some comforting words, like “Ah yes. I see what you’re saying. We can handle this.” And then use the ideas above related to breaking the big scary picture into workable parts. As they see that action is beginning, the alarm level should at least be lowered.
And, depending on your relationship, you may want to address this privately on another day, once things calm down. I did eventually have that talk with my boss (who was not yet a good friend). And I explained respectfully that we had so much going on, we needed to find a way for the emergencies not to affect the rest of our important work.
Change didn’t come right away. But we did get to a point where she was more trusting that her team would be there to find an answer. Also, we got better at mapping out steps to help comfort her poor overworked amygdala. And we got better at not getting caught up in HER emotions.
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