A couple of weeks ago I had a growth removed from inside my ear, and a week later the pathology report came back, saying that the lump had been cancer. It’s not very pleasant to hear that you’ve had cancer, and it’s also unpleasant knowing you’d had to leave it untreated for six months because you couldn’t afford health insurance. Anyway, that unpleasantness prompted the worrying part of my mind to go into overdrive. What if the surgeons hadn’t got it all? What if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body? After all, the tumor had bled once or twice. Who’s to say that a few cells hadn’t broken off and settled in other parts of my body? What would happen to my kids! Dying from cancer must suck!
What I found useful was to respond to those thoughts with “Yeah, right!” The tone of voice I adopted was wryly amused and skeptical. “Yeah, right!” was a statement that I wasn’t going to buy into the story that this worried part of my mind was creating. The result was that the stories decreased to the point where they more or less vanished.
And on the way to a post-operative appointment yesterday, I found myself tensely watching the other traffic, anticipating an accident. I think I was doing this because I’d been noticing how easy it is to get distracted while driving, and how easily distractedness could result in a collision. Anyway, to take an example, I’d see a car on a side-road ahead of me, heading toward a stop sign rather quickly, and my mind would rapidly create a scenario in which the driver failed to stop, causing us to crash. My mind must have created a dozen similar stories in the course of a 30 minute drive.
Here my response was to say to the frightened part of my mind, “Well, that could happen…” It struck me that the part of my mind that imagines accidents is actually very useful. If you’re anticipating what might happen, you can avoid it. This is something that it takes kids a long time to learn. So this function is useful, but if your response to anticipating what might happen is to imagine it happening in vivid detail and thus to make yourself stressed, then that isn’t very useful. So in saying “Well, that could happen…”, I was acknowledging the usefulness of predicting things that might go wrong, but also standing back and again letting the worried part of my mind know that I wasn’t prepared to buy into its catastrophizing. By the end of the drive to my appointment, these anxious thoughts had ceased, although that’s just an added bonus; I’d already stopped being troubled by my inner doom-monger.