Have you ever heard of this cast of characters: Chicken Licken or Chicken Little, Henny Penny or Hen-Len, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky or Ducky Daddles, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey or Goosey Poosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey and Foxy Loxy or Foxy Woxy?
Of course you have! It’s the famous case of the paranoid chicken that turned the world upside down by convincing everyone that the world was on the verge of being destroyed.
The first published telling of the story was in the early 1800’s. If you’re old enough (or a book collector), you might recognize that the illustration above is from the New Barnes Reader vol.1, New York, 1916.
The phrase “The sky is falling!” is part of our language and is synonymous with a state of panic.
Maybe you empathize with Chicken Little. She was just being careful and trying to be helpful, right? You never know when the sky might fall, right?
If you identify with Chicken Little, then you might suffer from the same malady – Catastrophic Thinking (CT).
People who use CT see the worst in every situation. A simple rash on their arm triggers thoughts of melanoma, which triggers thoughts of impending death, which triggers thoughts of what is going to happen to their family, which triggers thoughts of…… Well, you get the point.
Catastrophic Thinkers always have high levels of anxiety. Their limbic systems are out of control (specifically the amygdala, “amy” for short). “Amy” is tiny but she can cause big problems. She is the spigot for our alarm system which prepares our body for fight or flight. When she is running amok, CT is sure to follow.
Therefore CT is the result of emotions, not logic. That’s why it’s often fruitless (and frustrating) to try and reason someone out of their heightened state of fear. Even though there are cognitive distortions present, they are emotionally generated. Truly, sometimes how we feels affects how we think.
CT is often seen in people who:
- Witnessed violence in their childhood
- Were subjected to abuse as a child
- Grew up in a home were unpredictability was the norm
- Have had a series of traumatic events occur in such rapid succession that they haven’t recovered from one before another hits them
- Have been raped as an adult
- Have been in military combat
It seems that once “Amy” has become chronically over-stimulated by these types of traumas she retains a state of hyper-arousal. At the slightest hint of trouble she goes immediately to “10” and opens the flood gate of, among other things, our adrenal system. Like a nuclear missile, we are instantly armed and ready.
Being a catastrophic thinker takes its toll. It is usually a miserable existence. Catastrophic Thinkers don’t allow themselves to experience pleasure or joy. They are chronic worriers, even worrying about worrying so much. They are depressed and anxious, too. Sometimes phobias accompany CT.
Physical ailments can be a by-product of a life of CT – irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, chronic low back pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, TMJ, insomnia.
So what’s the “cure” for CT? If by “cure” you mean a state where there is never a moment of high anxiety and fear, then there is none. I’d rather use the word “manage” to describe what can be done to combat CT.
If I’ve done a good job of describing to you how and why CT works, then at this point you should be expecting me to explain how to manage “Amy.” Remember, she’s the culprit.
Because our bodies carry the effects of CT, try to focus on bodily functions first. Begin by slowing your breath, both inhaling and exhaling. Be sure you breathe abdominally so that you avoid shallow breathing (one of the culprits in hyperventilating).
Next, be sure you are aware of all your body’s sensations. Feel the fabric of your chair or car seat and define what the texture is (smooth, rough, silky, etc).
Notice how your shoes feel on your feet. Where do you feel the most pressure? What feels good? What feels uncomfortable?
Look at your surroundings. Notice details of pictures on the wall, the furniture, the lighting.
How smells can you notice and identify?
What sounds, both obvious and faint, do you hear?
Doing all these things avoids feeding “Amy.” And when you don’t feed her, she calms down.
Notice that I did not tell you to focus on your thoughts when “Amy” gets activated. That’s because for the most part they are irrational. Focusing on them only creates a vicious cycle where one irrational thought triggers another which triggers another, etc.
But after you give yourself time to pay attention to your body as I’ve described above, then you can begin to look at your thoughts. The first thing you have to admit is that whatever catastrophe you are thinking could happen, could actually happen. Yes, anything is possible. So ask yourself what you would do if worst case scenario happened. If you can come up with a plan for worst case scenario, then you’ll be able to handle anything less than that.
But there’s a difference between possible and probable. So ask yourself if it is probable. Most of the time CT doesn’t produce probable outcomes kinds of thoughts. Remember, that enhanced limbic system distorts our thinking. It becomes freakishly nightmarish. So, lay aside those things that are possible and begin trying to think of the things that are probable.
When you do that you are beginning to leave “Amy’s” room where you’ve been held hostage and are moving into the more reasonable area of your brain (technically the pre-frontal cortex).
This is an exercise you will have to do repeatedly before it becomes useful. (Practice makes perfect). But it will benefit you greatly. You’ll enjoy life more and find more moments of peace.
(Let me add this note: there are times that medication is warranted to assist you in your efforts to escape your Chicken Little life. But don’t expect the medication to “fix” you. You must still do some work in order to achieve a life that is balanced.)