25/04/2014 17:20 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

When Your Imagination Runs Away With You - The Fears That Haunt Parents


My nine-year-old son steps too close to the edge of the kerb and I imagine a lorry swerving and clipping him, then ambulances and screaming and me phoning his dad to say "Something terrible's happened..." I stand at the bottom of the stairs waiting for my four-year-old to make his way down from the top and, in my mind, see him tumbling over and over; I'm not fast enough to reach him...

A friend tells me whenever she leaves her son at nursery she worries that "a knife-wielding maniac" might break in. Another says she's always anxious before checking on her five children in case she finds they're not breathing.


We all do this, don't we? Let our imaginations run away with us? Imagine the worst possible thing happening and dwell on it until it makes us feel sick?


Psychologist Erin Hitzke assures me it's perfectly normal, but there's a but... "The trouble with worry, when it does not lead to a solution, is that we end up dealing emotionally with all kinds of bad situations that aren't even occurring. Our imagination quickly leads to a run-away train situation, and can rule our life."

When I asked my friends if they too worried about imagined horrors happening to their children, I was surprised by the response - not just that my friends all do this as much as I do, but by the creative variation in the worries they shared.

John Beresford's reply made me shiver. "I never let mine play unsupervised on the village green," John said. "We lived in a rural idyll that most would think perfectly safe. All I could see was a main road linking two major cities, an anonymous, unremarked car, a brief stop, and a daughter disappeared without trace..."

"We had planned a camping trip near a lake," Tiffany said. "And I kept imagining me coming out the tent and seeing Millie's body floating in the water."

Caro had obviously given this some considerable thought. "Garden canes through eyes (she will insist on mucking about with them), drowning in the bath because I turned away for 30 seconds, falling in front of the train when daddy brings her to meet me at the station, falling head first from a climbing frame if someone else takes her to the park, getting abducted from a sleepover, falling out of the bathroom window, breaking her neck on gym equipment, being killed by a friend's mother's crazed ex while on a play date, random death in the night... the list is endless."

I share these stories not to give anyone additional things to worry about, but to show how common this kind of worrying is. Also, I think, because misery loves company - I certainly felt a lot better knowing that I wasn't alone in this. But why do we do it? Is it some sort of mental emergency drill? Or is it something we should train ourselves out of?

Erin says, "Worry is generally defined as 'a form of verbal mental problem solving', which allows us to respond to events (usually of a negative nature) that may, or may not, happen in the future." And, yes, there is a practical response to all of this worry. Because of my fears at the train station, I make sure my boys know to stay well back on the platform. Because I picture them falling down the stairs, I've made sure they know to walk slowly and carefully. Because my friend Catherine worried so much that a large picture might fall on her son on his playmat, she had her husband put in extra hooks to secure it.

These thoughts are only a problem when they become hard to control or dismiss. Erin says: "The more worry, the more anxiety that is generated in our body, and that anxiety physiologically triggers us to worry more!"

So if you're worried about how much you're worrying, what can you do about it?

"While we can't necessarily control everything that happens in life, it's far healthier to deal with the bad things as they arise, rather than torturing ourselves emotionally all the live-long day about events that may never happen," Erin says. "When you have a negative or worried thought about the safety of your family (or about anything, in fact!), challenge it as quickly as you can. Ways to resolve a worried thought could include mental thought responses like:

'I will deal with that if it arises.'

'That's not going to happen, so I refuse to worry about it.'

'That's just my brain running worst case scenario.'

'I choose not to worry about that right now.'

"That said, for some of you, worry may already be on that run-away train track. If you find it hard to dismiss or resolve worries, or your worries feel out of control, it's important to seek support from a medical professional."

When I Worry Too Much