September 09, 2008

Yeah, but what if the house burns down?

[By Merry. Not assisted by any strange British film directors. Honest.]

Awhile ago, I wrote about not using a regular treadmill in my older house because I was afraid of electrical problems. Many people said that they didn't worry about it. Just plug the electrical appliance in. Whatever.
Me, I'm always "Yeah, but it's old wiring. What if the house burns down?"
Them, "When it happens, then worry about it."
I can't do that. I'm always visualizing the worst possible scenario and trying to decide how I'll handle it if it occurs.

Example: I was being a good Merry and cutting vegetables at the kitchen counter. (Yes Mom, I was using a cutting board.) I dropped a knife and it fell to the floor next to my foot. Instantly, my mind conjures up the scenario: what if it had fallen onto my foot? What if it struck a major vein and I started bleeding all over the place? If it were the left foot I could still drive to the hospital using my right, but what if..." And so on, and on.

Sometimes I enjoy the ride when my imagination starts to wander, but this tendency to extrapolate disaster can also be hard on the body.

Visualizing a negative scenario produces a physiological response in the body. The other day had a whole argument visualized in my head, sprung up from something trivial at the grocery store. The original incident was not at all negative but by the time I had extrapolated to the Most Negative Scenario, it was -- in my mind -- a full flung major dramatic scene. Found myself clenching my teeth and tensing my muscles -- over nothing. And I do mean nothing. I had imagined the whole argument, I knew it was a fictitious experiment in What If, and still my body responded with physical fight-or-flight response.

Most of the time it's just a game I play to pass the time, but I'm not sure I should treat it too lightly. I might end up being negative all the time. I want to try using this force for good, and think of the most Wonderful Case Scenario. What if I bend down to pick up the knife and see a $100 bill lying tucked up in the corner under the kitchen cabinet? What if I then use that money to buy a fancy new outfit, which I'm then wearing the next day when I run across this incredibly gorgeous man who takes me out to lunch... on his yacht...

There are many examples that aren't so... far fetched well, anyway, there are a lot of examples. The What If game is especially popular when used with visualization.

Professional athletes do positive visualization stuff all the time. One example that springs to mind is the diver Greg Louganis refusing to watch a videotape of his hitting his head on the diving board. He didn't want that image in his mind.

It helps other people too. Stroke patients often have difficulty using a regular treadmill. In Britain, a treadmill has been adapted to display moving images to the person using it. The patient views the different images (mountain scenes, forests, cities,) as if they were walking through the virtual landscape. Patients are fooled into thinking they are walking slowly which encourages them to walk faster.

Wendy Powell, a former chiropractor who created this treadmill at the University of Portsmouth, claims "in some cases movement has been improved by 20% and users feel less pain compared to usual methods.... We're effectively fooling the brain and the body."

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who visualize killing someone when they're playing video games (don't see how that is "not a bad thing"). It's not hard to find studies claiming that video games cause anti-social behavior. What makes me curious is that most of these studies focus on the effect of virtual aggression on young 'children and young adults.' I'd be willing to bet that the effects would be similar on older people.

I think What If is useful in a whole lot of scenarios.... trying to improve your running pace, reinforcing the willpower when you're faced with "just one more piece" of tiramisu... lots of good stuff. The Fit Shack ran a post about how What If thinking can affect weight loss.

According to Wikipedia, the word tiramisu translates as "pick-me-up."

But if visualizing something can affect how your body reacts, then I sure as hell don't want to play the What If game when I'm holding a knife.

Yes, I know Hitchcock made a lot of money playing What If...

This week I'm going to try balancing a negative scenario, with a positive one.

If you train your body, why not train your mind as well? What else were you planning to do with it?


  1. That is SO how my brain works.

    The imagined disasters? The arguments I play through in my head that are entirely made up but upsetting just the same?

    I do that ALL the time.

    I also have plenty of pleasant daydreams too. I haven't actually seen them do anything concretely positive for me other than help pass the time, but they're nice just the same.

    I think for me, the negative hypothesizing is a way to "work through" and prepare for emergencies. A little of that can be helpful, but I need to cut to the chase and imagine myself successfully defeating the problem quickly, so that I can experience an imaginary triumph rather than just imaginary stress. Think I'll work on that!

    Great post, and thanks for identifying that issue for me!

    Now it's time for me to visualize going to the gym and doing some unassisted pull ups... (a girl can dream)

  2. I visualize the knife landing point down betwen the bones in my foot and impaling me to the floor. Funny, I thought I was the only one that thought things like this!

  3. I do that too. Every time I have a near miss, I end up visualizing how bad it could have been and get totally anxious. It's even worse with my children. The youngest had a bad bike accident last weekend and for a few days after, at random moments I'd get these flashes of how much worse it would have been if she had just been a couple inches in another direction and have total anxiety over it.

    Visualization has positive influences too, I believe. When I'm feeling down on myself about the very slow progress on the weight loss, I visualize myself in a year, at a healthy weight and really let myself feel how good it will feel. It helps me keep going.

  4. Visualisation is the sign of a good imagination and a creative mind! Learning to use it to your advantage is invaluable for motivation and forward planning. But when IT begins to control YOU, it can lead to negative thought cycles and problems with anxiety.

    I am very prone to this too, although I direct it more towards other people... as in, if I say this, then what if she thinks this, and then she is upset/angry/disappointed with me? But other people's reactions are as unpredictable as the physical situations you're describing - we have to learn to let 'em go!

    Not always easy :0(

    TA x

  5. we can do negative visualization?
    Im only 1% kidding in that I hadnt really ever pondered it that way (superficial much?).
    I use it all the time for everything from lifts to my Toddler behaving to lifegoals.

    *looks around room and suddenly notices all the potential for neg.visualization*



  6. Negative visualization is as powerful as positive so I do my best to avoid it.

  7. It makes a lot of sense to me. When it comes to losing weight, they always say that if you can't visualize yourself at your goal weight, then you probably won't get there.

  8. I am glad to know I am not the only one who can get all worked up over imaginary conversations/scenarios. Mostly I think I just need to stop thinking so much.

    I do like the idea of positive visualization though.

  9. Oooooh I am the Queen of imagined arguments. Usually they involve my husband and myself and by the time I'm done, I am boiling mad and ready for a divorce. He of course has no clue and then has to incur the wrath of my overactive imagination. Then I feel bad and apologize later, only confirming his suspicion that yes, I am a little bit crazy.

    Must find a way to use these powers for good instead of evil. I will try to visualize wonderful, exciting things happening from now on, although I don't think my husband will think I am any less crazy.

  10. I do that all the time. I've routinely convinced myself that my parents aren't going to love me anymore. In fact, that's the default for any mistake I make now, and I honestly think it's hurting my relationship with them, but I really can't stop the thoughts.

  11. I notice that it's far harder to avoid the negative version if I'm really tired or haven't eaten anything for several hours.
    One cheesecake later, and I'm a much happier camper, alas.
    Good to know other people do this as well!

  12. I so need that treadmill!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  13. Ah, yes, the imagined outcome. I tend to do this a lot.

    Usually it's about some upcoming confrontation or something I think MIGHT be a confrontation--it gets played out over and over, sometimes when I'm trying to get to sleep at night. I think it's just a defensive mechanism, so I can be "prepared" for what might come.

    The funny thing is, though, I'm NEVER RIGHT. NEVER. What does that tell you?

    The motivation for this kind of thing comes from fear. (And as I always say, your emotions will lie to you. There I am trying to analyze and "worst-case" the situation and I think I'm being so pro-active and smart...but the actual confrontation, if it EVEN HAPPENS, never works out the way I imagine.

  14. That happens to me occasionally, especially since I live alone (well, with Bad Cat but he would not be a huge help). I am afriad of slipping in the shower and banging my head against the tub. Or choking on something. eeeek!

  15. Holy crap, I thought I was the only one who did this! And I do it constantly!
    Need to learn to turn the negative visualizations into positive. Not easy to change a life-long habit, though.

  16. I'm big into visualization (though I call it daydreaming). Every time I run I imagine I'm winning some race or overcoming some huge obstacle and STILL winning the race, LOL. (BTW, I have never won a race but I have to have goals right?) It really keeps me motivated, otherwise I think I'd get really bored on long runs.

    As for the negative stuff, I'm one of those people who always envisions the best case scenario and just shrugs off the bad stuff (otherwise I'm afraid I'd get really depressed).

  17. Yes, I am guilty of this. I can replay an argument in my head for quite a while and still feel the upsetedness, the feeling of injury etc... I have learned ways to side step this now, but still, it lurks and I do believe that it negatively impacts my body. I think we can see how our thought patterns truly affect us especially when looking at people fighting diseases such as cancer. Their frame of mind makes a huge difference...

  18. I do this all the time! I totally have conversations in my head (people I pass on the street must think I'm a little crazy because sometimes I actually say it out loud without thinking about it), about things that I wanted to have said, or to prepare for a conversation I might have.

    I also envision scenarios all the time. Sometimes it's something like a movie - I'm in a bar with a guy I like, then terrorists take over the bar and in the end, me and the guy end up together. Other times it's less fantastic and I imagine what would happen if I choked on my dinner and had to try to give myself heimlich against the corner of my dining room table. Glad to know I'm not the only person who's brain goes fantasy-crazy!

  19. Oh, yes, I like to be a hero in my imagined disasters, too ;-)

    And we can't be the only ones -- they do have that TV show and board game called Worst Case Scenario!

    It's good to be prepared. :-)

  20. "But when IT begins to control YOU, it can lead to negative thought cycles and problems with anxiety."

    I have literally thought my way into panic attacks from imagined scenarios!

    I've been reading up on this a lot recently and have been working hard to change my thought patterns or distract myself from myself---does anyone have any good tips for this???

  21. Mind training = so important!

    Sometime I'll imagine worst case scenarios, but it has the effect of making me more grateful that things turned out the way they did. Thinking of negative things like that makes me appreciate my life and everything in it a lot more. that weird?

  22. LaLou - I'm going to a therapist tomorrow who specializes in meditation and mind-relaxing exercises. I'm hoping it'll help, because I've recently started having some anxiety, and did have a panic attack myself (mostly because I didn't know it was anxiety and though there was something wrong with me). If you're having panic attacks, you might want to try something like that (though I have no idea yet whether it works...)

  23. I am a negative visualizer, too! (so many of us!) If my husband is a little late, or if I drop the knife (which honestly? I do once a week, minimum), or the near miss on the freeway.

    Maybe I need to take that talent and apply it to my bikini potential.

  24. A common occurrence in my world...WHAT IF?! Ugh! Nice post...thank you! :)

  25. Ah yes, I'm so with you on the "what if"ing. Sometimes it's a good stress reliever, other times it's just more crazy in my head. Thanks for making me feel less alone Merry!

  26. I use to be a what if person in the that drained me! I have focused on the positive a lot more lately. My hubby is I have to balance him out so maybe together we will remain neutral ;)

  27. I really does help to visualize in advance (or actually execute the steps, as in a fire drill) what you would do if there was a disaster. Watching the flight attendant's presentation, planning what route you would take if you had to evacuate your home - these things have been proven to increase your chances of survival. But you have to focus on what is likely to happen to you. I'm not really worried about earthquake preparedness in New Orleans. Hurricane preparedness, on the other hand, is a top priority.

    I do have flashes like the falling knife sticking into my foot - every time the knife falls! I agree with Crabby. Why not continue to visualize yourself in the situation, dealing with the problem. Stopping the bleeding with a towel and possibly going to the emergency room to get fixed up. Then you'd go home and have a great story to tell your friends - "You know how every time the knife falls you're so scared it'll stick in your foot - well that happened to me!"

  28. I sometimes have the same problem with imagining these negative scenarios. I try to make excuses for my little anxiety episodes, such as "I'm just preparing myself for the worse case scenario," but I know I need to stop. On the flip side, I do sometimes picture myself working out with a lot of energy and making healthy meals for myself. Unfortunately, I don't follow through with these =/

  29. Your cure has arrived, Merry :-)

  30. I just stumbled this. I can not see a bad outcome from my stumble BUT if there is you will be fine.

    GREAT post.

  31. Dr. J, that's just what I needed. I love the idea of pronoia :)

    Kiki, thanks for the stumble! I don't think those ever hurt.

    Thanks to everyone for all the great comments! It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who does this, and a lot of people have good ideas for how to deal with it.

  32. Merry - two things:

    Me? I am like you. When that bread drops, I visualize it falling on the heavily buttered side, and it does. Of course, that may be because I buttered both sides. But regardless.

    Second? I recently heard the most compelling argument I've come across for positive visualization. Essentially, if you visualize positive things, you will be more aware of them since you're looking for that pattern. The perfect example is when you are interested in buying a new car - you will suddenly notice all of that particular model on the road, whereas the week before you wouldn't have thought about that car, and you likely didn't see them nearly as often.

    There ya go. Smartass for number one, and sensible for number 2. :)

  33. i have this weird phobia of leaving the curling iron on and the oven. i rarely use either but i always get a flutter anytime i pull away form my house.

    i unplug my treadmill, too.

  34. I totally do the same thing!! Everything that happens ends up an entire scenario and/or conversation in my head..except mine are pretty equally negative, positive, and just plain wierd. I don't even do it intentionally! I generally realize 90% of the way through it that I'm doing it. But then it's hard to stop. Sigh.

    But I do like the idea of positive scenarios!! Have to try that...

  35. OMg - just gotta say, that is the coolest shower curtain I have ever seen!! (Never really thought I would ever say that sentence@@)

  36. Wow, what a great discussion!

    La Lou--I'd highly recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy for this; it's pretty effective. If you've got money for an actual therapist, it goes a bit faster and is easier to stay motivated, but there are self-help books that can help change your negative thinking and teach you relaxation skills too. (There's a lot of homework, which makes it sort of a pain but is also what makes it work).

    Don't know any specific titles off hand, but if you look for cognitive or cognitive-behavioral approaches to anxiety or panic, I think there are a number of good self help books now.

  37. Crabby, thanks so much for the tip--I'm going to look into that!!!

    Believe it or not I was given "The Secret" as a gift and it talks about how thoughts attract like thoughts which I've found to be true. I'll have a little negative, paranoid thought and soon it's morphed into a bombardment. Lately I've been trying to actively focus on something else or go running.

    I've also been doing the "Style Statement" workbook by Carrie & Danielle---I think the further I've strayed from my true self over the past years, the more influenced my thoughts and insecurities have been by the media's portrayal of "perfect" women, etc. When I think about who I am and what makes me tick my whole outlook changes.

  38. Hi Merry!

    Thanks for the shout out on my post re: "What If" thinking - it sure can bring ya down if you indulge in it and it can definitely sabotage your weight loss and fitness mojo! ("what if" I can't keep this up? "what if" I regain the weight? "what if" etc. etc......)

    Thinking those kinds of thoughts will quickly get ya running to the frig if you use food to soothe....much better plan of action to work on replacing those thoughts with positive, self-empowering thoughts.

    And btw, that shower curtain is super funny - I wouldn't want to think about Psycho everytime I showered LOL, but it would be fun for a laugh like around Halloween! :)

    Make it a great weekend for yourself Merry!! :)



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