Making Up Scenarios In Your Head: Causes, Examples, How To Stop

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Almost everyone daydreams. It’s normal for your brain to wander from time to time to seek out a subconscious adventure.

There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s perfectly healthy.

However, unhealthy forms of daydreaming can cause you a great deal of distress and worsen your mental health.

Some people constantly create negative scenarios about the potential for terrible things to happen to themselves or people they care about. And, again, it’s normal to have some fears and periodically worry about something bad happening.

Creating these negative scenarios in your mind becomes a problem when it interferes with your ability to conduct your life. That worsens your “quality of life” because you’re dwelling and acting out of fear.

As a result, you may avoid reasonable risks, normal activities, and impede your ability to live your life. No one should need to live in fear.

Quality of life is a common metric that mental health and medical professionals base their evaluations on. It’s how they separate chronic problems – like consistent catastrophic thinking – from temporary problems that are just part of the normal human experience.

Why do some people always think the worst?

This type of thinking, known as catastrophic thinking, may stem from mental health issues or mental illness. However, there is a difference between mental health issues and mental illness that we should make sure you understand.

For simplicity’s sake, mental illness is typically a chronic experience of distorted thoughts, emotions, or behavior. On the other hand, a mental health issue may just be a temporary problem where a person is experiencing mental, emotional, or behavioral problems because of a situation that they’re in.

For example, a person experiencing anxiety may not have an anxiety disorder. Maybe their anxiety stems from housing insecurity. “How will I pay my rent? How will I pay my bills?” But then the anxiety goes away when they clearly have enough money to cover their living expenses. On the other hand, a person with General Anxiety Disorder may be struck with worry about whether or not that’s actually an issue.

So, a person may create negative scenarios because of mental health issues or illnesses. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder may constantly worry about circumstances outside their control.

People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may obsessively latch onto negative thoughts, causing them to create those troubling scenarios in their minds.

Those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may also find themselves circling back around to “what if?” thoughts related to their trauma or fears created by their trauma. Worst case scenario anxiety may also be caused by surviving child or domestic abuse.

Often, creating negative scenarios is a coping mechanism. The person may have experienced unexpected trauma that they are struggling with. Catastrophic thinking is a way for them to exert control over unforeseen circumstances that might harm them later.

Other times, that extends to the person’s loved ones. They are creating these negative scenarios to anticipate whatever horrible thing might befall their loved ones.

The universal connection, whether temporary or the result of chronic mental illness, is that they affect the person’s quality of life. Quality of life is a person’s ability to conduct general life activities, like socializing, working, self-care, home care, and engaging with the present and future. They may even affect the quality of life of people around them by encouraging them not to live their lives, take risks, or act in ways to avoid threats that aren’t real.

That should not be confused with the potential for real threats. For example, if you live in a sketchy neighborhood, it’s perfectly reasonable to think about and take measures to avoid being robbed. Or maybe you work a late shift where you have to take the garbage to the dumpster at one in the morning and don’t feel safe doing it by yourself. Imagining negative scenarios and coming up with ways to avoid them is perfectly reasonable in situations like these.

What does worst case scenario anxiety look like?

We’re going to look at some examples of excessive negative thinking so you can better understand what it looks like.

You may see some elements that you experience; you may not. It would be impossible to compile an exhaustive list of examples. Don’t take the examples literally or write off your own negative thoughts if they don’t match. If your thoughts are problematic enough to interfere with your life or peace of mind, then they are a problem worth addressing.

Example 1 – Sarah

Sarah is driving to work. Every time she passes an intersection or railroad tracks, she experiences an intrusive thought of getting side-swiped. She pictures the aftermath of her twisted car. She imagines being injured and helplessly trapped in the wreckage beyond immediate help.

Sarah then pictures herself dying because she couldn’t be helped in time. Then her mind jumps to her family and friends. What will it be like when the police deliver the news to her parents? How will her friends react? How will her partner react?

What if she doesn’t die in the wreck? What if she ends up in a coma for years? What if she is rescued, taken to the hospital, and dies in Emergency Care? What if she can never walk again?

And these intrusive thoughts just inject themselves into her brain and take off without her consciously thinking about them.

Example 2 – Mark

Mark is worried about the state of the world for his children. Climate change is bearing down on the world in a way that is causing massive problems. Fires rage in areas of drought. There are conflicts for water and resources in places where water is a problem. And it doesn’t seem like anyone is really doing anything! Well, they are, but it seems like it’s mostly corporations fighting to keep their profits tooth and nail.

At night, he lies in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about all of the worst-case scenarios. How will he ensure the safety of his children? How will they have a good future with the economy as it is? Will they be able to find a home with the housing crisis and inflation? How will they be able to get a good job so they can afford to live?

Imagining these bad things happening to Mark’s children has a foot half in reality. These things are legitimate problems that may cause real harm to Mark’s children. However, Mark is not a seer of the future. He can’t know whether or not these catastrophic circumstances will come to pass. There could just as easily be significant advancements in key technologies to help turn the tide.

And you may be thinking, “Well, what’s the problem with worrying about this?” The issue is that it will definitely affect the way Mark conducts his life. Not only is he not sleeping because he’s up worrying every night, but he will also project his fears onto his children. That may be indirect and subconscious, but it will affect his family.

Example 3 – Leah

Leah is preparing to go to college. She’s just hanging out and doing her thing when she starts thinking about it. But instead of excitement or happiness, her mind drifts into everything that could go wrong.

What if her financial aid doesn’t come through? What happens if she doesn’t make any friends? What will she do if classes are too hard? What about if she fails because she can’t handle the coursework? What if her teachers are bad or they’re not good people? What will she do for a job if she does fail in college?

It’s less that these thoughts are forcefully intruding into Leah’s stream of consciousness. Instead, she is purposefully creating these negative thoughts. She may be trying to exert control over this exciting but scary unknown situation that she is going into.

As you can see, there are common elements between these examples. All of them focus on circumstances beyond their control. They are all speculation and “what ifs?” even if they are reasonable in some cases. All of these thoughts are causing each person additional stress and worry.

An additional problem with worst case scenario thinking.

We’ve already touched on the obvious problems with making up negative scenarios in your head. They can severely negatively impact your ability to conduct your life, affect the people around you, and cause you stress. But there is an additional problem that this type of thinking can cause.

Catastrophic thinking reduces your tolerance for stress and your ability to handle the problems that actually do come up. In many cases, the chronically worrying person is trying to exert control over the unknown. The problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You can sit there and think about these things all day but get completely blindsided by something you could never see coming.

Furthermore, what if everything goes well? Well, then you’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop. “It couldn’t go this well or this smoothly! I spent all that time thinking about all the things that could go wrong!”

Anxiety for the future robs you of your peace for today, but it also wears you down. It wears down your resilience to deal with whatever comes down the road at you later. That’s one reason that it’s so important to address this issue.

How can I stop creating negative scenarios and catastrophic thinking?

As we’ve addressed, there are different kinds of catastrophic thinking. Some thoughts are controllable, and others aren’t. The ones that aren’t are called intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are often caused by mental illnesses like OCD, PTSD, or anxiety disorders.

If you have intrusive thoughts that frighten or worry you, it would be best to talk to a certified mental health professional. This is a problem that may not be within the scope of self-help. The thoughts can sometimes be managed, but managing them won’t address the root cause.

A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

On the other hand, you may find that you have control over those thoughts. In that case, one of the best ways to disrupt negative thought spirals is to interrupt them or go against the current.

You may be able to interrupt it by simply doing something other than sitting around and imagining bad things happening. Do something mentally engaging that will force your thoughts onto that different track. You can try watching some comedy, doing puzzles, playing a video game, or really anything that will occupy your mind fully.

The other option is to swim against the current of the spiral. Instead of thinking negative thoughts about everything that can go wrong, think about how things can go right. What are the benefits? What if everything works out great? What if it works out beyond your wildest dreams? Those possibilities are just as feasible as the negative ones. It’s just that negative thoughts tend to have much more power than positive ones. Making those negative thoughts smaller is something you’ll need to work at.

Don’t let yourself dwell in these negative thoughts and scenarios. Instead, get some help to nail down the problem and address it as best as possible. Even if you can’t eliminate the negative thoughts completely, reducing them can significantly improve your quality of thought and life.

You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.

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