What If Upping
The Remedy for Catastrophic Thinking
Catastrophic Thinking Has Its Roots In Real Life Events
I went to a play last week — Mama Mia, shown at our local outdoor theater. I’d never been to this venue before, and I really looked forward to it. For the first time in my life, I am able to do whatever I want. And I love live theater, so I bought my ticket and went.
Since I don’t drive, I get where I need to go on Uber. It’s a simple process, really. Just punch pick-up and drop-off addresses into the app on your phone and wait for someone to show up. No big deal. That is, as long as you punch in the right address. As it turns out, the place that runs the theater lists two addresses in google — one for the theater itself, the other for their warehouse. I punched the warehouse into the Uber app by mistake. Fortunately, that snafu was easy to fix, and I was on my way at last to the play.
I set up my pink camp chair on the lawn, thoroughly enjoyed the performance, had nacho chips at intermission. In all, it was a wonderful evening. Besides, attending this play was important to me. It was on my self-care to-do list. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like transportation problems dampen my enthusiasm.
Then, with the words of Mama Mia! ringing in my head, it was time to go home. As I joined the throng headed to the parking lot, I pulled out my phone and called for a ride. There, in the stream of cars leaving the lot, I couldn’t meet up with my driver. He called me, and in the bustle of people, camp chairs and cars, I couldn’t hear or understand him. He canceled my ride and I panicked. How was I going to get home?
With a knot forming in my stomach I kept walking, made it out to the main road and stopped beside the front ticket booth. It took quite a while for my breathing to slow down enough to remember that I was able to simply call for another ride.
I waited five long minutes for this one, during which the driver zipped past me, went around the block, and finally met up with me on the right side of the road. Oh, I really didn’t need that extra bit of adventure. But I did make it home, in one piece, with my camp chair in tow. I tucked myself into bed with Dancing Queen replaying in my head.
Just before I closed my eyes, I glanced into the corner where my suitcase sits waiting for me to pack it. I have a weekend vacation planned, to celebrate a milestone birthday. There will be a six-hour flight, with a layover. And I got seriously worried. If I was prone to panic over such a little thing as a missed Uber ride, within long-but-doable walking distance of home, how would I handle a problem in a large airport?
The best advice I got? “Breathe.” Okay. I can do that. I think.
When we’re in a panicked state, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, getting us ready to spring into some kind of action. Think about a hungry saber-tooth tiger that’s chasing you. When we’re running for our lives, our bodies divert energy to where it’s needed —away from our brain and into the muscles of our legs. That puts a few of the more basic bodily functions, like breathing, on more of an autopilot than they already are. So, a surprisingly effective way to get control of anxiety is to concentrate on taking a long, deep breath. Then another. That tells our body that we’re safe.
Another piece of advice? “Use your creative imagination.” In other words, I could turn my analytic, problem-solving left brain loose, and let it figure out alternative solutions. umm…I think I need to pass on that little nugget of wisdom. At least for now. I’m afraid that hooking up my left-brain solution thinking with my right-brain creativity will get me into trouble.
Everyone indulges in “what if” thinking from time to time. It’s a normal part of our thought processes. But often, it leads us in a direction we might not want to go. Usually, “what if” thinking gets us fretting about everything that could possibly go wrong. It’s Murphy’s Law on steroids.
What if it rains all weekend? What if I miss my flight connections? What if there’s another 9–11? What if there’s no record of my reservations? What if Uber is on strike? What if my card doesn’t work in the ATM? What if the bank shuts off my account for suspicious activity? What if someone swipes my luggage and burns all my underwear?
This is what Law of Attraction and self-help coach Joe Vitale calls “what if down” thinking.
Our challenge in getting a handle on our run-away imagination is that “what if” thinking often has some basis in reality. It has been known to rain where I’m headed, and the hotel closes the water park when it does. I could miss my flight. Terrorists are unfortunately still around, and nobody has figured out how to stop them yet. Clerical mistakes are made, documentation does get lost, and strikes do stir up trouble for customers. Cards don’t work sometimes, and the bank does shut down accounts for suspicious activity. And yes, I personally know of someone who had his luggage stolen and the thieves torched his underwear. Crazy people are allowed to live and breathe too.
So how does one plan for such contingencies?
Well, in case of rain I could bring a good book and read in the hotel lobby.
I can simply quit worrying about terrorist activity. It’s wasted energy anyway, and takes all the fun out of living. But if situation requires, I can keep a bit of extra money handy to get a Greyhound bus home. I just downloaded the app on my phone. You know. Just in case.
I can print off all documents, receipts, and emails, to provide evidence of reservations. Done.
I can notify the bank of my travel plans before I leave, including all cities I will be visiting. I’ll hold off on that till the week before I leave.
I can make sure my card is in working order, and take alcohol swabs to wipe dirt off the chip. Check.
I can take only a carry-on bag and an oversized purse, and never let them out of my sight.
As for the underwear, I can stow some of it in the carry-on, and a couple more in the bottom of my purse.
There! Problems solved.
It’s All in the Attitude
Planning ahead is a very wise and important thing to do, whether we’re heading off to work or to an exotic vacation spot. Let’s face it. Without some level of prior planning, we’d likely show up for that board meeting in our jammies. It might just be me, but I don’t think that would go over very well.
But why do so many of us take preparation to such an extreme, expend all that physical and mental energy, as if we’re getting ready for Armageddon?
I think it’s because are brains are hard-wired to protect us from saber-tooth tigers. It’s true that surprise attacks from carnivorous beasts aren’t very common nowadays, but our brains don’t know that. So, one of today’s challenges is teaching our brains how to gain control of the fight/flight/freeze response.
That’s where What If Upping comes in handy.
Whereas what if downing can throw us into full-blown panic, What If Upping encourages hope and optimism.
It goes something like this.
What if the weather is absolutely gorgeous when I go on my vacation— warm and sunny, with just the right amount of wind and clouds to keep me comfortable? What if the lines are short at airport security, I breeze through without a hitch, and the security guard actually addresses me with patience and kindness? What if my flights and connections are all on time, I have the entire row of seats to myself, and they serve my favorite flavor of ice cream? What if this weekend retreat is the greatest thing I’ve ever done? What if I make new friends, with whom I have a lot in common, and keep promises to stay in touch?
See? What If Upping is a lot more fun. It also saves a lot of time and energy. It floods my brain with all those feel good chemicals, and lets me relax and enjoy this long-anticipated vacation. Now, that sounds like a winner.