I excel at expecting the worst. I have a vivid imagination, and when something happens, my mind leaps ten steps ahead constructing a worst case scenario. When the car makes a strange noise, I imagine that the engine is going to blow up while traveling at a high speed down the highway, and the car will go careening across four lines of traffic to crash into a mountainside. When I have a headache, I fear I have a brain tumor that is growing at exponential rates and will soon destroy my cognitive abilities and turn me into a vegetable before I die a long, slow death. When my husband is late returning home from an outing, I imagine that he has been involved in a terrible car accident.
This week, I ran across a statement from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote, “If you tarnish your perceptions by holding on to suffering that isn't really there, you create even greater misunderstanding. One-sided perceptions like these create our world of suffering. We are like an artist who is frightened by his own drawing of a ghost. Our creations become real to us and even haunt us.” That’s what I do: I draw a ghost and let that ghost frighten me. I hold on to suffering .
In my twenties, I learned that psychologist Albert Ellis had coined a term to describe what I was doing. He called it “awfulizing,” imagining that things are as bad as they can possibly be.
I first encountered the term “awfulizing” in psychologist Joan Borysenko’s book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind (1987, rev. ed. 2007). Borysenko, a pioneer in integrative medicine, explores the connections between the mind and the body and the ways that stress damages our health. Her book offers concrete physical and mental strategies to help readers face life in a “stress hardy manner.” (31)
My aunt Laura sent me the book because it was an intensely difficult time in my own life. I was working for a difficult and micro-managing boss. I was beginning to feel like my career as an alumni and development professional was not a good fit for me. I began to dread going to work every day. Long hours took their toll. My health was suffering. I wasn’t sleeping, and I had a perpetual pain in my neck and shoulders where my tension seemed to settle. Worst of all, I seemed stuck in a cycle of constant awfulizing.
Borysenko’s book changed my life, helping me to understand how stress was affecting my body. She helped me to recognize various “mind traps” that made it difficult for me to let go of my anxious thoughts. Over a period of months, I used her exercises in deep breathing, stretching, and mindfulness to regain a sense of control over my life. Eventually the chronic pain in my neck and shoulders disappeared, and it has never returned.
I’d like to tell you that I never engaged in awfulizing again. Over time, though, I fell out of the habit of regularly practicing the strategies I learned from Dr. Borysenko’s book. When I’m under stress, I can fall into the pattern of imagining worst case scenarios. In 2009, during another stressful period in my life, I began practicing yoga as a means of coping with anxiety. I quickly realized that many of Borysenko’s techniques were drawn from yogic traditions. (Turns out that Borysenko is also a certified yoga instructor.) I dug out my copy of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, and I once again began to use some of Borysenko’s strategies. I had come full circle.
Thanks to my yoga practice and some of Borysenko’s techniques, nowadays I can usually short-circuit my awfulizing before it gets out of control. If you, too, are an expert at constructing disasters in your head, you might want to take a look at Minding the Body, Mending the Mind. You might even want to take a yoga class. And I’d love to hear other ideas about how you rein in your tendency to expect the worst.