Worst-Case Scenario…or Not?

Aug. 8, 2018
“Just in case”, “Expect the unexpected”, “Never let your guard down” all familiar mantras. However, there are consequences for all that extra over the top disaster chatter in your brain.

Catastrophic thinking can be defined as ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes. Fact: Every person tends to catastrophize from time to time. Catastrophizing is an insidious habit that can have serious consequences in all aspects of your life.

As law enforcement officers you have been trained, and retrained, to observe, plan, react, and respond over and over in your mind. You remain on high alert most of your waking hours. “Just in case”, “Expect the unexpected”, “Never let your guard down” all familiar mantras.  However, there are consequences for all that extra over the top disaster chatter in your brain. This can be especially true in a crisis situation. You can’t see the forest through the trees. As your fears and anxieties increase you may find yourself frozen to respond when confronted with a true critical incident.

The Difference Between Catastrophizing and Anxiety

While both anxiety and catastrophizing can be harmful to the psyche, anxiety can be beneficial in some circumstances. In the right situation, anxiety becomes a positive emotion and as well as a defense mechanism. Anxiety sends a notice that something is amiss. The heightened alert that comes with anxiety can play a useful role in a person's life.  It prompts individuals to become protective of themselves. However, catastrophic thoughts can fill an individual’s mind with unnecessary and unwarranted emotions that take time and thought away from the reality of a situation at hand.


You're a patrol officer in Cleveland, you are working the second shift on a cold January night; blizzard conditions. The roads are icy and are full of idiots. Everyone is working on traffic accidents, including you. There are a couple no-injury accidents backed up. An assist the FD call comes over the radio, the radio address of the house is in your neighborhood. You are married with three young daughters…you call your wife to check on your family. She doesn’t answer the phone, you panic, she always answers the phone. You quickly become overwhelmingly convinced that something bad has happened. Even though there is no evidence to back up what you're thinking, rather than concentrating on your work or you're driving, you begin to ruminate about this perceived "catastrophe."

Catastrophic thinking needs to be managed, not discounted. Your anxieties are real, as are your fears and insecurities. It can be very difficult to manage this habit. If you don’t try, the consequences are heavy, your ruminations can sabotage your confidence and prevent you from living the life you know you are capable of.


1.      Identify the worst-case scenario in your head for what it is: Irrational

2.       Next, identify best-case possibilities.  Your wife may have simply not heard the phone while she put the kids to bed or shoveled a patch of sidewalk. She might be taking a bubble bath. She has never been a risk taker. She has always called you at the first sign of any trouble.

3.       Finally, look at these best-case possibilities and identify whether or not they are the most likely outcomes. You need to control irrational thoughts and develop a more realistic plan for coping with situations that are beyond your control.

Your wife calls you back in 10 minutes, sorry that she missed your call, she was talking on the phone to her mother, and said she called you back as soon as she could. Kids are fine and asleep, she didn’t even know about the fire…she is fine, but not really. She is worried about your health – mentally and physically.

Catastrophizing not only hinders your daily happiness, productivity, and achievement, but it can also have long-term effects on your mental health. Unaddressed, catastrophizing can lead into a severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or panic disorder. 

Four Practical Tips When You Find Yourself Catastrophizing

1.       Remember, you are still in control: The catastrophe that has started to brew in your mind comes from your negative, self-depreciating inner critic telling you that you will fail or that you are not adequately prepared. Loudly tell your inner critic to cease and desist he or she is not your friend. Saying “no”, “not today”, “piss off” will disrupt the catastrophic thought process and help you toward feeling more level-headed again.

2.       Breathe: Stop and breathe. Focus on just your breathing… in and out… … in and out… nothing else. Calming your body down helps your mind to think more clearly and to return to what is happening right now in this moment instead of being lost in future nightmares.

3.       Think it thru:  Take a reality test…. how many times in the past have these catastrophic scenarios ever become a reality? Remind yourself of the actual facts in front of you. Pull yourself back into the real problem at hand.

4.       Talk it through and get input from a level-headed peer or significant other. Seriously, just venting and have someone listening can help put the actual situation back into perspective.

Protect Your Mental Health Against Catastrophic Thinking

Some healthy habits to practice and role-model

·         Don't exaggerate the negative.

·         Stay specific and stay on task.

·         Remind yourself that just because one aspect of your life is going poorly, that your entire life is not doomed to failure.

·         Remember that “black and white” or an “all or nothing mindset” prevents problem solving activities and blocks optimist thoughts

·         Maintain sleep hygiene.  Sleep deprivation makes people more hypersensitive to threats, real or imagined.

·         Understand that your thoughts do not define you. We all have had thoughts that are disturbing at times.  Acknowledge them simply as thoughts and let them pass.

·         Remind yourself that the past is the past, it is not the present, or the future.

·         Eat healthy, enjoy freshly mowed grass, go for a run or a swim, get a massage, chop some wood, cook a gourmet meal read a book, do a puzzle, etc. Do things your body and mind will appreciate you for. Feel good about yourself.

·         Maintain healthy, nurturing, supportive relationships.

·         Set some goals and achieve them.

Save your righteous fight or flight response for true emergencies. Be safe out there.

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