Are you a worrier?
Do you toss and turn at night replaying the problems of the day or running horror films in your head about what disasters the future holds? Perhaps your days are full of niggles and ruminations that keep you feeling edgy and ‘wired’?
If so, you’re definitely not squeezing all the juice out of your life and probably feel you’re sucking your way through a daily bowl of lemons instead?
If your thinking style has turned a bit sour and you seem to go from A-Z missing out all the letters in between; if you think a headache means you’ve got a brain tumour, you might be a catastropher. It’s a recognised thinking error and something many people have. It robs you of your happiness and prevents people living life to the full.
Catastrophisers expect disaster to strike, no matter what. They hear about a problem and start using scary what if questions like ‘What if tragedy strikes?‘ or ‘What if that happens to me?’
Sheila described herself as ‘a terrible over-worrier’. She’d always been an anxious child, she said, but it was when her father died that her imagination really took over.
Now she spent most of her day scanning herself for symptoms like the ones her father had experienced. From the moment she woke up in the morning ’til she finally fell into a restless sleep at night, she was running frightening scenarios in her head.
The trouble with worrying is it eats serotonin, which is your feel-good hormone and it’s actually really tiring.
I spent a couple of sessions rationalising with Sheila. She understood all the catastrophising was bad for her but she seemed to have got into such a habit of endless rumination, her brain had become hardwired for anxiety. She knew it was ruining her enjoyment of life but she just didn’t seem to be able to break out of the cycle.
I tried asking Sheila ‘Who is thinking your thoughts?’
‘Me,’ she replied.
‘It seems to me you’re spending too much time looking in the mirror and not enough looking out of the window’ I said. Sheila got the point, but it didn’t seem to make a difference.
Finally I told her a story I often tell to people caught up in an abusive relationship. But it seemed to me it was really appropriate for Sheila, as she was locked into an abusive relationship…… with her own mind.
The Pigeon Tunnel
When writer John le Carre was a young boy, his father took him on one of his gambling sprees, to a casino in Monaco. While he was there, he was surprised to discover pigeons were being bred and hatched on the roof of the casino.
When they could fly, they were put into a tunnel through which they would shuffle forward towards the exit where they could stretch their wings and take off into the bright Mediterranean sunshine. What the pigeons didn’t know was that, down below and lying in wait, were some of the casino revellers looking for a bit of idle sport between gambling sessions.
When the pigeons took to the sky, the gamblers took pot shots at them as they flew overhead. Some were hit. Others were clipped and fell to the ground where they were finished off. Some were missed and flew high into the sky.
But the pigeons which escaped then did what pigeons always do: they returned to the place of their birth, the casino roof, where the tunnel awaited them all over again.
Le Carre says the image of the pigeon tunnel has haunted him all his life.
Taking back control
The story had a big impact on Sheila, as it does on all who hear it. It conveys an important message about choice and about taking back control.
So, if you are frightening yourself with scary or negative thoughts, start by asking yourself one very important question.
‘Who actually thinks my thoughts?’
And listen very carefully to the answer.