Confessions of a Catastrophic Fantasiser

Or: being a “what if” person

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I was first introduced to the term Catastrophic Fantasy whilst on a workshop for Assertiveness in the Workplace led by a public speaking coach. She started with a “get to know you exercise”… you can imagine how well this went down in a room full of the type of introverted people who signed up for an assertiveness course. All we had to do was catch a ball, introduce ourselves and say why we were on the course then throw the ball to someone else. I didn’t hear anyone’s introduction. I spent the whole exercise psyching myself up for catching the ball and then worrying I would pass it on to someone who had already spoken and embarrass myself.

Obviously if I had worried less about messing up I could have concentrated more on who had spoken already and save myself from making a mistake. If your mind is nice and orderly like that then lucky you, how productive you must be. Welcome to the world of a worrier…

When it came to each of us explaining why we were on the course, I gave the above example. I choose not to speak up at work or in large groups simply for fear of saying the wrong thing or not being heard. I stay quiet to avoid embarrassment. She then asked me if I find travelling stressful, if I can’t relax until I reach my destination because I worry that something will go wrong. Yes, I said, every single trip. And that’s when she explained the term “catastrophic fantasiser”. Someone who will always worry about the ‘what ifs’ and may even amend their choices and behaviour based on those worries, irregardless of how likely they are to come to pass.

This applies if you are the type of person who is always considering the worst case scenario and, if you are also a highly empathetic person, you will likely feel the feelings that come with those thoughts. Your face burns at imagined embarrassment, your eyes well up when you consider how you would cope with the loss of a loved one, never mind that the person in question is perfectly fine and (thank god) has no idea you are playing out their death in your mind. Side note… it’s generally not a good idea to share these thoughts out loud. Recently, when I went quiet on a car journey my boyfriend asked me what I was thinking. I told him I was thinking what if we crashed and he was unresponsive, I would have to call an ambulance and tell them where we were but I had not idea. He did not ask me to share my thoughts for the rest of the journey…

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. Mark Twain

Back to the travel analogy, if I am going on holiday I will have considered what can go wrong at each stage of the trip. What if we oversleep and don’t leave on time? What if the train is delayed and we miss our flight? What if I forget my passport or lose it on the way? What if our flight gets cancelled? Most of the things I worry about I have absolutely no control over and this is what baffles my boyfriend. As far as he is concerned, if there’s nothing you can do about it then don’t worry about it. Sound logic but it’s not always that easy for me to do.

The trainer at this workshop had some better advice. She said there is no point trying to not think about what you are worrying about, trying to not think about something is a sure fire way to ensure you obsess about it endlessly. She said to try and accept that you are worried, don’t berate yourself for it but then try and counter the thought with a more positive one. Accept you are worried about the journey but then spend some time thinking about what you will do when you get there, what are you looking forward to? This sort of ‘thought re-programming’ is a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and one you can do yourself without the need of a therapist.

Of course, I’m talking minor worries here. If you experience debilitating anxiety when undertaking day to day tasks then don’t hesitate to ask for help.

The key is to accept the thought and deal with it rather than trying to block it out. Ron Breazeale writes a useful article on this in Psychology Today and emphasises that “Catastrophic Thinking needs to be managed, not discounted”*. He identifies a 3 step plan for dealing with these thoughts.

1. Accept the thought for what it is: a worst case scenario

2. Consider a number of other scenarios that could happen — a few best case scenarios

3. Review your best case scenarios and identify which one is the most likely outcome

Of course, this process takes practice and time but its worth persevering until it comes more naturally. It’s still a work in progress for me but I’ll keep at it and in the mean time, I’ll try to stop terrifying my boyfriend with tales of his imagined doom.


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