‘Anxious dread’ is how a radio report from the Ukranian frontline described the mood in a city under fire. Whilst most of us are fortunate to have no experience of living in a war zone, we all have that anticipatory fear at times, but we all spend some time anticipating fear.
Subconsciously, millions of neurons are constantly firing in our brains, checking and cross-referencing emotions and memories with the primary purpose of ensuring our safety, survival and wellbeing. This essential safeguarding ability evolved to protect us from primaeval threats like predators.
The fact that we don’t have the same exposure to the physical dangers faced by our primitive ancestors doesn’t stop our brains from reacting as if we do sometimes. Day to day stresses keep us on ‘amber alert’ when there’s often nothing to worry about. The biochemistry of this relentless, relatively low grade pressure causes inflammation and tension to build up in our bodies. Over time, it can be emotionally overwhelming and cause mental health issues.
‘Doomscrolling’ – anticipating fear.
Table of Contents
Our lives are so different from the circumstances our brains are designed to protect us from. We have constant exposure to information about terrible things happening around the world. Even if we’re safe and danger is far away, ‘doomscrolling’ / anticipating fear brings fear right up close, front and centre in our cosy world.
It used to be that we didn’t know what was going on in the next village or town. Now technology and social media puts us in the thick of the battle, wherever it may be. The drip drip of disastrous news became a flood of fear when the pandemic hit. And now we have the threat that a madman with his finger on the nuclear button might just press it.
Two very different global disasters are in the process of reshaping the world we live in. Both the pandemic and the war in Ukraine contribute to uncertainty, lack of control and change which trigger anxiety and can lead to catastrophic thinking. Since the discovery of antibiotics, epidemics no longer pose the threat they once did. Until the late 1980s, when Glasnost ended the Cold War, the doomsday scenario of total nuclear destruction was the focus of the fearmongers. It’s shocking to be reminded that these dangers never really went away.
Anxious people are brilliant in a crisis. This is because they anticipate problems and mentally rehearse every possible solution until they get to the disaster that can’t be fixed. And then they fixate on it. This is called catastrophic thinking. This is an extreme form of negativity which can become obsessive and overwhelming.
Catastrophic thinkers are prone to presuming ‘everything’ is going to go horribly wrong. They love a good conspiracy theory and can reinforce their anxieties by doomscrolling for worst case scenarios. There is no limit to the online fuel for a catastrophic thinker’s firestorm of fear. Managing this anxious habit takes a mindful effort to get some perspective and accept the things that can’t be changed and change the things that can.
Here are some tips for ‘de-catastrophising’ and relieving the emotional distress of living with the expectation that disaster is always around the corner.
- Next time you find yourself in a panic about an imminent disaster, whether it be global or personal, you can calm your fears with ‘even though’ self-talk. For example, ‘even though I worry about my children, I know they are safe, healthy and happy’. This is a simple way of cancelling or neutralising negative thinking before it becomes extreme and disproportionate. Bear in mind, whatever alternative positive statement you use has to be true!
- Stop doomscrolling! Some flying phobics can’t resist googling air disasters. Step away from the internet. It is human nature to gather information and be prepared. The essential purpose of anxiety is to safeguard. Ignorance is bliss but it’s also, by definition, stupid. Our unconscious mind runs a constant risk assessment of our environment and circumstances and is powerfully influenced by emotions. Fear keeps us cautious and alive but it can also destroy our ability to appreciate life. Don’t go looking for problems, focus on those you can do something about.
- Smell the roses. Easier said than done, you might say. When terrible things are happening around the world, remind yourself of how safe our little island is. We live in peace and prosperity compared to most of the rest of the world. Keeping a daily gratitude journal is a way of shifting emotional distress to a state of contentment.
We all have superpowers
Of course, when you’re in the midst of a real and dangerous crisis, no amount of positive thinking psychobabble is going to make your anxiety go away and thank goodness for that! Anxiety is literally a lifesaver, giving us access to resources and abilities which kick in with an adrenaline dump and give us superpowers beyond our normal capacity. This turbocharged state isn’t sustainable all the time but it can be trusted to come to the rescue when needed. There’s no point in compromising happiness and health with catastrophic thoughts until there’s a catastrophe. You’ll cope better than you imagined.