The human imagination is a many splendored thing, and as a writer, you depend on it. But in addition to providing wonderful ideas and images for us to use in our work, imagination can also take small challenges and transform them into magnificent, insurmountable dilemmas in the wink of an eye. It can turn a sniffle into metastatic cancer, and a manuscript rejection into irrefutable evidence that you are mentally retarded. This aspect of imagination gone wild is called catastrophizing.
I once consulted with a very bright assistant professor who was struggling with her writing productivity in a tenure track position. As the months ticked by without any completed articles, her anxiety level spiked and she became so acutely aware of the passage of time, minute to minute, that she became essentially paralyzed in terms of writing. Her view of herself became grossly distorted. When I spoke to her, she was completely convinced that the following conclusions were true:
1) I have lost the ability to write and have a mental defect, probably a fatal tumor.
2) I will not get tenure and this failure means I will not be able to succeed as a professor anywhere else.
3) I have spent so much time pursuing an academic career that I’m unqualified for any other career.
4) I will be totally unemployable and I will lose my house and end up on the street with a only a few belongings in a shopping cart.
None of these terrible things happened, but she spent many months in a miserable anxiety state before eventually settling down and finding her way.
Fear + imagination =catastrophizing. For writers, catastrophizing creates internal stress, excessive adrenaline discharge, overwhelm, hopelessness, work avoidance, decreased performance and lowered productivity. If this sounds familiar, it helps to learn how to recognize when your mind is spinning out of control with excessive worry, and to learn skills that help you relax and calm your mind down.
Relaxation skills training, meditation, exercise and therapy might all be useful for settling down the mind. Writers can also put these wild thoughts on paper as they arise, and examine them more objectively later. There is a good discussion of how to work with catastrophizing and related problems in David Burns’ book “Feeling Good,” which is based on ideas and tools from cognitive therapy.