Emotional Health

Fighting Catastrophic Thinking When Catastrophe Strikes

For people with anxiety and anxiety disorders, one useful tool is recognizing and fighting “catastrophic thinking.” This is a tendency to expect the worst—that the worst will happen and it will be the worst possible scenario when it does. They imagine that catastrophe is not only possible, but also likely.

In helping combat these thoughts, we teach people to distinguish between the possible and the probable. After 9/11, Americans, and New Yorkers especially, were plagued by all kinds of fears. They worried that not only would another terrorist attack happen, but also it could take the form of a chemical attack, a subway bombing, even a small nuclear weapon. People were stockpiling antibiotics to fight germ warfare and buying gas masks.

For several months it seemed that everyone was suffering from a form of mass PTSD. While this diagnosis originated as a result of the treatment of veterans, it has been useful as a way of understanding the psychological reactions we have to all kinds of traumatic events. As a survivor of sexual abuse described to Congress recently, while you may not remember all the incidental details, you remember the feelings of the event as it had just happened. For some, PTSD even involves reliving the event as if it was happening in real time.

Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading researchers in this field, says that trauma is often remembered primarily in the body. We can have an automatic physical response to certain triggers—one that bypasses the thought processes and is experienced immediately, and physically. An example is the war veteran who cringes or even hides when he hears a loud boom. Though it may be a car backfiring, his body reacts as if he is in a war zone and he takes the appropriate action.

For people who have experienced actual catastrophes, it is hard to reorient their cognitive process because, as van der Kolk says, the trauma “resides” in the body. It is like the autonomic nervous system or basic physiological responses like a pupil shrinking when exposed to bright light.

As children, our feelings of safety are provided by the sense that our parents will protect us. This is one reason why it is so devastating when a parent exposes us to, or even causes us to be in danger. As we mature, we realize our parents are not omnipotent but are reassured by the knowledge that there are no monsters under the bed. Real monsters, such as violent criminals and terrorists, will be kept at bay by the police, the armed forces, and ultimately by a fairly enforced rule of law.

What happens when these reassurances break down, or aren’t there in the first place? A series of highly visible incidents during which young black men have died as a result of police gunfire have highlighted how unsafe African-Americans feel in this country. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are now increasingly fearful about their basic safety. And no one is immune from the threat of random gunfire, unless they literally never leave the house.

In times past, trust in the government and in the rule of law has been somewhat reassuring. Problems are not solved overnight, but there are people out there prepared to protect us. How do we feel safe when the reality is that only some are protected and only some have the opportunity to find a better way of living?

All available evidence shows that the only way to protect us from more random shootings is gun control, and yet our government seems immune to this message. A fundamental breakdown in our sense of safety has occurred, yet the source has been misattributed. We will be safe if we keep certain people out, not weapons.

But we cannot predict who will be the next person to strike at a crowd of people. Isolating certain groups, like Muslims, is ineffective, not to mention wrong. The only common denominator in the group of mass killers is that they seem to be young men (except for the Las Vegas shooter.) What they really have in common is access to guns.

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