Noah didn’t expect the rain, but the heavens opened and water surged from below, obliterating every living thing on the planet. However, the rainbow came afterward, proving that God would never destroy the earth again with a flood.
More than a reminder for Noah’s time, the rainbow is also sign for us today that as bad as things may get, they don’t necessarily have to get worse. And while catastrophes do happen—whether natural disasters or those created by humans—our mind doesn’t have to immediately jump to the conclusion that the sky will fall.
This sort of behavior is known as catastrophizing. The mind leaps to believe something far from the best. Disaster appears to lie just around the corner. Psychologist Albert Ellis calls it “awfulizing,” because the individuals involved imagine a consequence so awful that they will not be able to stand it. But by any name, this is easy to do.
God’s people should not live this way. So why do they?
Unfortunately, the tendency to think the worst affects us all. No one is better than we are individually to make our own predictions come true.
Thinking the worst can bring the disaster you fear in subtle ways. Chicken Little is the perfect example because after the acorn fell from the tree, he went forth to spread the alarm.
In fact, he was so unnerved by his belief that he couldn’t manage to do anything more functional than run around and panic that all he could do was panic. Chicken Little wasn’t merely worried, he was terrified—because he was convinced not only that he was faced with imminent disaster but also that there was nothing he could do about it.
There are all sorts of situations in which it is easy enough to lose your cool. Remember the mother in the previous chapter who was convinced her children were kidnapped or killed because they failed to contact her?
The kids were not home on time. Mom said to herself: They’ve been killed. They’ve been kidnapped. Her heart started pumping wildly. She was so panicky, she couldn’t even call or text them.
Or consider Ralph, who was driving to an important job interview, praying that he would say the right things and make a good impression. But then he took a wrong turn and realized he would be late. I’ve blown it, he said to himself. Now I’ll never get that job. He was so upset about losing the job that he wasn’t concentrating fully on driving. As a result, he missed a turn that would have gotten him back on the right road.
Sometimes the end result to the Chicken Little syndrome is not just missing a turn but failing to look for one. A common tendency of those who believe that disaster is unavoidable is to simply give up—to make no effort to resolve the problem. After all, if you have concluded there is nothing you can do, then it follows you will probably do nothing:
- Emily has mislaid a report she knows would be very helpful in a meeting that is scheduled for today. Lord, help me find it. No, wait, I must have thrown it away, she thinks. It’s just like me to throw away something important. No use looking for it. I’ll never find it.
- Joe is laid off from this job and knows that he’ll never find another. He sends out a few resumes and hears nothing. That proves his point. It’s hopeless, he says to himself. God obviously doesn’t love me. A friend hears of an opening and tells him about it. “They’d never want me,” Joe tells his friend, and doesn’t bother to call.
- Marcia turns down a friend’s invitation to join a committee at church because she is positive no one will listen to her, rejecting any ideas she has to offer. So instead she stays home and feels sorry for herself. If Marcia does not join the committee, she will avoid the humiliation of being rejected—but she will also eliminate the possibility of making an impact for God and church members. And she certainly isn’t having a good time at home if she fills her hours with self-pity.
This sort of thing happens all the time. For example, take Mark, an associate pastor who has been asked by the elders’ board to become senior pastor, after the senior took another position elsewhere.
Mark is ordinarily self-confident about his abilities to speak in front of various groups in the church. But the thought of standing in front of the entire congregation, in the sanctuary, on a Sunday morning turns him into walking Jell-O.
He has never preached a sermon to everyone before, and he is sure he will flub it. But the elders insist that he give it a try, and after praying about it, Mark thinks God may be telling him to go for it.
Mark has spent all week preparing and practicing his message, in the privacy of his office, but as he is ready to step to the podium, a series of horrible scenes fly through his mind:
- The microphone won’t work.
- I’ll get upset and lose my place.
- Which will cause me to stutter.
- Then I’ll get it all messed up.
- And everyone will laugh at me.
- That will make the elders furious.
- I can forget any hopes of getting this job.
- I’ll be lucky if I keep my current job.
- I’ll be destroyed.
In a matter of seconds, Mark has both written a script for disaster and convinced himself it is inevitable. No wonder, then, by the time he opens his mouth to speak, his tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth, his palms are sweaty, his knees are knocking, and his voice is wobbly. He does stutter. He does lose his place. I know it, he says to himself, miserably.
Why couldn’t Mark trust God in this situation? A stronger, more mature Christian wouldn’t have messed up, right?
The Bible says to not be anxious about anything but to pray about everything, and you will have peace, despite what’s happening around you. Apparently, Mark didn’t have enough faith, and the elders should look elsewhere.
Not so fast. Here’s why. A closer, more honest look by any of us could quickly put our self-doubt to rest.
Who hasn’t at one time or another taken a single piece of evidence and magnified the negative consequences of it? This is what we common refer to as making a mountain out of a molehill.
We are all guilty of it. But we don’t have to be in bondage to it if we can learn—through God’s help and the principles of CBT—to become more realistic thinkers who can recognize danger and suffer disappointment without automatically assuming there is nothing we can do to improve things.
If we recognize that in the past we may have fallen victim to the Chicken Little syndrome, it’s likely that we would start out with a heightened awareness of the fact that terrible things do happen. This may simple be part of the way we view the world.
Chicken Little may have been convinced by a source he found credible that under certain circumstances the sky really could fall. That thought is tucked away in his brain. Then something happens (the acorn) to release that thought.
This release doesn’t happen all at once. As psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck discovered in his groundbreaking research, what happens is that you quite literally talk yourself into that worst conclusion.
This was the case with Mark. Somewhere in the back of his mind is the view that it is possible for him to be denied a job because of one mistake. That is not what he is thinking about, however, when he first approaches the podium. He starts out merely being concerned about whether the microphone will work. But that thought, like the acorn, is enough to trigger the next thought (that he’ll get upset and lost his place), which leads to the next thoughts and the next and the next, until Mark can actually visualize himself having no chance whatsoever of getting the job.
Mark is not aware that is quite literally persuading himself that a disaster is about to befall him. His internal conversation takes place not in minutes but in seconds, maybe even milliseconds. His thoughts fly through his mind so quickly that each individual though is barely notices. Dr. Beck calls these quick-flying thoughts “automatic thoughts.” We all have them.
Automatic thoughts are perfectly normal. Most people have a constant stream of thoughts running through their minds.
They might merely be quick little daydreams that have nothing to do with the task at hand. Sorry, my mind was drifting, you might say. Or those thoughts might be critical to accomplishing the task at hand. Running quickly through a catalog of thighs is necessary in any decision-making process. Should I do this . . . or that? you ask yourself. You mull over the reasons for one choice or another before deciding what to do.
But because your thoughts—whether positive or negative—have a profound effect on what you do, there are times when it is vital to make yourself consciously aware of precisely what you are thinking. You can easily replay the tape of your thoughts if you concentrate on doing so. When you review the thoughts that led to your conclusion, you give yourself a chance to evaluate their accuracy. You can even challenge your own thoughts just as you might challenge someone who tells you that the world will end in 20 minutes, with Jesus coming on the clouds (Are you sure? How do you know that? Why should I believe you?)
Learning how to challenge a conclusion to which your brain has leaped will help you to recognize when that conclusion is unjustified by facts. Learning how to argue with your automatic thoughts will help you avoid those self-fulfilling prophecies of disaster and enable you to cope—realistically—with upsetting situations. Obviously, you can’t always keep bad things from happening, but you can make sure that you not read more into them than they actually mean. Or to put it in Chicken Little terms, you may not be able to prevent an acorn from falling on your head, but you can prevent the pain, panic, and self-fulfilling prophecies that might result if you simply jump to the conclusion that the bump on your head means the sky is caving in.
This does not mean analyzing everything you do. Rather, it is a technique to be called on when you are facing a stressful situation and thus are most likely to rush into mistaken reasoning.
If you were a munitions expert called on to defuse a bomb, you would want to concentrate all your attention on that delicate task in which you are engaged. But you wouldn’t have to be equally intense later while having lunch or shopping in the supermarket. The point here is to develop your skills so that you can call on it when you need it. Life has a way of producing lots of emotional bombs that need defusing.
Defuse them through examining your thinking. It’s what God wants for all believers, whether more mature or newer to the faith.