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Unbidden thoughts of catastrophe

Recently I asked this question on my Facebook page:

“Do you ever have spontaneous daydreams about awful things happening, like, ‘What if I was mowing the lawn and I accidentally ran over my foot?'”

No one replied. I’m relatively new to the social networking scene and still learning the ropes. I’m guessing no one answered because they were thinking, “Why on earth are you asking me that? … Weirdo.”

Here’s why I was asking. I have to believe I’m not the only one whose imagination occasionally gets hijacked by spontaneous images of disaster.

Sometimes I’ll get an idea of something horrible that could happen, and my whole body will respond as if  it’s really happening; my heart will beat faster and my stomach will knot, my breath will be shallow and I’ll scrunch up with tension.

Like the other day as I was walking on the sidewalk, I suddenly pictured a speeding car jumping the curb and ramming me right into a building that didn’t look very soft.

I’m writing this because I’ve figured out a good way to deal with these unbidden catastrophic fantasies when they sneak up on me.

Trying to clear the thought from my head doesn’t work as well as this:

As soon as I discover that I’m using my own brain to freak myself out, I relax my whole body. The moment I do this and take a nice deep breath, the image disappears – Pop! It’s gone.

It’s almost as if the tension in my body created the fantasy, instead of the other way around.

So if you happen to be in the thrall of an unpleasant daydream, try this “relaxation response.” I never read the famous book by that title, but I wonder if it’s the same principle.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting, and ReconnectionClub.com, an online support and information hub for parents. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Unbidden thoughts of catastrophe"

  • jwynnyk
    February 19, 2012 - 7:25 am Reply

    This post is very personally relevant – my home was recently burglarized and I am still dealing with some PTSD. The first days after the incident, I was certain the thieves had returned…their shadows awaiting me every time I opened my eyes when sleeping. It took me a couple of days to fully realize how shallow my breathing was. I have been getting better with my breath in the weeks following the incident, but bringing my body into it is definitely something I’m going to integrate into the equation.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 20, 2012 - 11:58 am Reply

      Thanks so much for sharing your personal story. I’m glad you found the post relevant!

  • lgfuller07
    March 27, 2012 - 4:19 pm Reply

    People may not want to admit it but I know others that happens to not just you. It’s amazing how deep breathing and other types of breath work & meditation can seem to soothe the soul. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 29, 2012 - 6:05 pm Reply

      Igfuller07: It’s a subtle phenomenon that happens more often at some times than others. I’ll try to pay attention to what else is going on my life when those fantasies arise, assuming that maybe it’s displaced anxiety persuading my brain to concoct anxiety-provoking images. But I’m also wondering if it has to do with hormonal — or even dietary — influences. We’re such complicated animals, there may not be a simple explanation. Meanwhile, I appreciate your words of solidarity and your taking the time to read and comment.

  • Cheryl Peddie
    March 23, 2013 - 4:53 pm Reply

    Thanks for this post. This happens to me a lot, mostly when I’m stressed. It’s disconcerting to say the least. Even frightening. I find I worry more after it happens, which just seems to make it even worse.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 23, 2013 - 5:40 pm Reply

      Cheryl, I hope the physical relaxation response helps. If your thoughts won’t settle down, you might try digging underneath the worry and asking yourself, “What would I be thinking about if I weren’t thinking about this right now?”

      You might uncover something that needs to be addressed before it can let you go.

      Thanks for visiting, and for sharing your experience.

      • Cheryl
        March 24, 2013 - 2:15 am Reply

        Thank you Tina
        I guess I didn’t even realize I was stressed or not relaxed. But here I am awake at 3am again, so something must be going on. Can one think of these thoughts as my body’s warning system? Like an indicator that I’m pushing myself too hard or that something’s bothering me? Can it be with some folks that these thoughts come before we even realize we’re stressed? And, how on earth can I be going along not even realizing I’m stressed?! I know I’ve been really tired the last few weeks, but I didn’t really know why. S

        • Tina Gilbertson
          March 24, 2013 - 11:39 am Reply

          What you’re describing sounds like a good reason to get to a doctor and tell him/her about your symptoms if you haven’t done so recently, Cheryl. It’s important to rule out medical problems. Good luck and take care.

  • Cheryl Peddie
    March 24, 2013 - 6:38 am Reply

    Thank you Tina. Yes, you were right. Your question brought me back to some old memories actually. Funny I’d forgotten how much I used to have the same experiences with these thoughts as a child. I worried constantly too. Do you know, if someone is predisposed to these kinds of thoughts and worries, are they kind of ‘doomed’ (for lack of better word!) to have them all their life? I’ve been in therapy for a while and I’ve always kind of wondered that. Thank you, Cheryl

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 24, 2013 - 11:30 am Reply

      I don’t know the answer to that one, Cheryl. I like to think not. But given your history I’d be inclined to broaden the investigation to your physical health, including (but not limited to) nutrition and exercise. Those can definitely affect your sense of well-being.

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