Search the Site

Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: We had prepaid flights. And there’s nothing that gets Americans to do anything more than just making good on their prepaid flights.

*     *     *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: How can you stop catastrophizing?

DUCKWORTH: I think you hate me. I think I’m a bad person. I think this is the end of our friendship and our working relationship.

*     *     *

DUBNER: Angela, I think of all the people I know, you are the least likely person to catastrophize, which is a word I did not know until recently.

DUCKWORTH: I think, Stephen, by “catastrophizing,” you mean making a mountain out of a molehill. Is that what you mean?

DUBNER: Correct. I’d read this article in The Guardian by a clinical psychologist named Linda Blair — not the Linda Blair of—

DUCKWORTH: Mm. From The Exorcist?

DUBNER: I’m pretty sure it’s not the same Linda Blair. But according to this definition, “catastrophizing” is what happens when you hear some — as she puts it — “uncertain news,” and then you imagine the worst possible outcome. So, I can imagine that if a person were to consistently do this, it would be really damaging. I could imagine that you are someone who does not do this. So, I wanted to ask you today: Whether there’s someone out there who does this all the time, or even a little bit, I’m curious what your advice would be to manage this. And by the way, I’m not suggesting that it’s the bad or the wrong way to go.

DUCKWORTH: You don’t want to be judgy.

DUBNER: I don’t want to be judgy.

DUCKWORTH: Even though the word “catastrophizing” is a little judgy — but, go on.

DUBNER: Well, I will say “mountain-molehilling” does sound a little bit less judgy.

DUCKWORTH: Not much, but still —

DUBNER: Well, first of all, how many of us have ever actually encountered a molehill?

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s the hill of a mole. Is it not?

DUBNER: You know, even I figured that part out, but like, is it a big bump in the dirt? Is it invisible to the naked eye? I don’t know. We need to have more moles on the show, I think.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s an excellent suggestion.

DUBNER: “Excuse me, Sir Mole, when you build a hill, what would you say are the dimensions of said molehill? And how does that compare to the dimensions of your local mountain?” But that’s not the question that I really wanted to know. I want to know: If someone catastrophizes, what’s the harm? What are the downsides? Maybe, what are the upsides? But, assuming there are downsides: As a positive psychologist and someone who I assume does not catastrophize, what’s your best advice to manage this?

DUCKWORTH: I want to start with a story, Stephen, of my dad. So, growing up, my dad, I remember, was in the front seat of the car driving. I was in the back seat. We were in a parking lot near For Eyes or something. I must have been getting my annual eye exam.

DUBNER: Wait. There’s an eyeglass place called For Eyes?

DUCKWORTH: Isn’t that clever?

DUBNER: That’s embracing the epithet.

DUCKWORTH: You got the joke though, right? For eyes. Like, “for eyes,” but also “four eyes.”

DUBNER: Oh, I didn’t even need the double entendre. I just liked owning your own epithet.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Well, it’s a self-confident, myopic population that perhaps frequents For Eyes. And anyway, I do remember being in that parking lot. And I remember that it had those little speed bumps built-in to kind of slow you down. But my dad wasn’t going — well, not particularly fast, but we hit a speed bump. And he clearly hadn’t anticipated it. And the car went up, and it went down, and it was like, “boom.” And my dad spontaneously emoted — as he often did — “Disaster!”

DUBNER: Was it his catchphrase, would you say?

DUCKWORTH: Well, he was a bit of a catastrophizer. This tendency in clinical psychology is sometimes called “maximizing.” It is a feature of people who not only tend to be, as I think Linda Blair was hinting at, anxious — because anxiety is thinking about the worst possible outcome that has yet to happen — but it is also a feature of depression. And in that case, it’s more typically looking back at something that just happened. Like, you and I have a misunderstanding, and if I catastrophize about that past event, I blow it all out of proportion — I think you hate me. I think I’m a bad person. I think this is the end of our friendship and our working relationship. So, I think catastrophizing can be anticipatory or retrospective. And, yeah, my dad was pretty good at both.

DUBNER: You described anxiety as envisioning the worst possible outcome yet to happen, which sounds a lot like catastrophizing. Is that the case? Can there not be a healthy level of anxiety?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yeah. I mean, anxiety is an emotion. We have emotions for survival purposes. But anxiety as an emotion doesn’t have to be at its extreme — which is, for example, P.T.S.D. or generalized anxiety disorder. You know, this emotion, which comes from the anticipation of future bad things, at its extreme can be debilitating, and awful, and paralyzing, and dysfunctional. But I had anxiety this morning thinking that maybe I wouldn’t get to the recording studio on time. So, that’s a helpful thing, to experience that emotion, to think, “Wow, I might not get there,” and to pick up my step a little bit — which I did.

DUBNER: Let me propose a scenario. I’m imagining now this spectrum of, let’s say, zero to five. And let’s say zero is “blissed out.” I have zero negative thoughts, or anxious thoughts, or catastrophic thoughts about anything. And then five is “catastrophizing.” If that were the spectrum, would anxiety live somewhere on that spectrum? And how close is it to catastrophizing? Or are you saying that anxiety is the variable that brings us from “blissed out” to “catastrophizing”?

DUCKWORTH: I think it might be helpful just to think of it as a continuum, like you said: zero to five. You could ask me, like, “How anxious, Angela, are you feeling right now on a scale from zero to five?” I could say, “I’m maximally anxious, or I’m minimally anxious.” The word “catastrophizing” suggests that whatever number I give you, it’s actually not a number that matches reality.

DUBNER: Oh, okay.

DUCKWORTH: Let me just give you a specific example. When my mother was drowning next to me on Christmas Eve, I was a five on a scale from zero to five. I don’t think I could have been more anxious — more, like: heart rate racing, adrenaline coursing. That is not the same thing as catastrophizing, because you could say, “Well, if you’re in the middle of the ocean, 45 minutes by speedboat from shore, and your 86-year-old mother is drowning by your side, you better be a five,” right? And the anxiety response, which is physiological, which is cognitive, which is motivational — like, literally your body shifts gears into a different mode — is, in that case, incredibly appropriate. And also, the key here is that when it’s no longer appropriate — we’re on the shore, the E.M.T.s are there, et cetera, et cetera — it’s the normal thing to actually go down from five to what was like a 4.5, and then eventually, you know, to be maybe a two. So, the catastrophizing language here is really important. I think it’s appropriate to think, “This person has blown out of proportion whatever reality is.”

DUBNER: So, you just indirectly told this story that is wild — that you’d told me on the phone shortly after it happened.

DUCKWORTH: Did I never mention that before on No Stupid Questions?

DUBNER: I think our listeners — this is the first time they’re hearing this. So, can you just describe— You and your family went on a holiday recently to Florida and then—

DUCKWORTH: Yes, a quote-unquote “vacation.” We went to Miami. This is a vacation that we had planned to do months before. Remember those golden days?

DUBNER: The COVID window.

DUCKWORTH: The COVID window when the vaccine was announced and everybody anticipated the liberation of human society. And then, of course, you know, it ended up being the height of the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, we had prepaid flights. And there’s nothing that gets Americans to do anything more than just making good on their prepaid flights. So, we go to Miami — my husband Jason, my daughters Amanda and Lucy, my mother-in-law Sharon, and my 86-year-old mother Teresa, who, by the way, was nearly 87, if that makes this any more dramatic. So, on the fifth day of this vacation, it’s Christmas Eve, and we go two hours driving south of Miami to the Florida Keys. And we get on a speed boat — this is all of us and a captain. We travel 45 minutes — at pretty high velocity, by the way — out to the middle of the ocean, or that’s what it felt like to me. And we go in to snorkel, and I was the last person to go in. So, Jason goes in, Amanda goes in, Lucy goes in, my mother goes in, and then I go in. My more sensible mother-in-law stayed on the boat.

DUBNER: I hate to cast aspersions, or even potential aspersions, but what—

DUCKWORTH: But what was I thinking?

 DUBNER: Did anyone express reluctance about the potential downsides of an 86- or 87-year-old woman going into the high seas?

DUCKWORTH: Let’s round up. Let’s call her 87.

DUBNER: Let’s call her 90, hell, if we’re rounding up.

DUCKWORTH: Basically, a centenarian. The only person who experienced the emotion of anxiety to a level that was notable or vocalized was my daughter. So, Amanda, who’s 20, said to me, gripping my wrist, “I’m worried about Popo.” Popo is what we call my mom. It means “grandmother” in Chinese. And she says, “Stay with Popo.” But it was Christmas Eve. So, it’s like, “Come on, the whole family is going to stay together.”

DUBNER: And it is a famous Chinese tradition to go snorkeling on Christmas Eve in Florida. Yes?

DUCKWORTH: Well, if there’s any tradition to be made, I think my family tradition will now be to not go snorkeling on any day. Because, in this case, this is a story of catastrophe, not a story of catastrophizing. But I use Amanda here as an example, because this is why we have anxiety. It’s an alarm system for your mind. Her thought that the future was going to be bad was a useful warning. She vocalized her anxiety. We went snorkeling anyway. I did ask the captain — I said, “Is it okay that my 87-year-old mother is going to do this?” He said, “The most dangerous thing that you did today was to drive the two hours here from Miami. I have been doing this for decades.” And when I got into the water, Stephen, I said, “I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and even for me, I was like, “Wow, this current is super strong.” And it was immediately taking me away from the boat — in the opposite direction of where we were supposed to be swimming. So, I had anxiety then. If you asked me, “On a scale from zero to five, how much anxiety do you have?” I probably immediately had at least a three or four.

DUBNER: And you had gone in after your mother. So, where is your mother now?

DUCKWORTH: My mom is being carried out to sea. So, my mom is, like, 95 pounds. And so, I immediately went to swim to my mother. I held her hand, and I tried to point. I was still trying to look at the wildlife. Honestly, I was like, “Oh, I guess I should look down. Like, there’s a fish in this incredibly murky—” It ended up being a very windy day.

DUBNER: You’re wearing life jackets, I assume.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, Stephen, this captain gives us these yellow, plastic vests. And I say, “Are these the life jackets?” And he said, “Oh, no, no, no, we’re snorkeling. You don’t want to have a life jacket on. You want to be able to dive down, if you want to. If you’re really in trouble, see this straw here? You can blow it up. And then it’s something like a life jacket.” I was like, “Oh, well I am blowing up my mother’s life jacket.” And, by the way, the captain was like, “Oh, that’s too puffy.” So, he took out some of the air of hers.

DUBNER: Wait, the captain depuffed your mom’s vest?

DUCKWORTH: He depuffed the vest. And then he, like, handed her a noodle. You know, the kind you have in the swimming pool? He’s like, “Here’s a noodle.”

DUBNER: So, it’s you and your mom in the open water. She’s got a vest and a noodle, and she’s 87 years old, almost. Both daughters and husband are already in the water, correct?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And they swam to the reef, because they’re young, and they’re very athletic.

DUBNER: And how far away were they, by this point?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know because they were on the other side of the boat. So, I tried to look at the fish. I’m sort of looking down. I think at this point I wasn’t holding her hand, but I was really trying to stay with her, which meant swimming back toward her and being by her side. By the way, when you snorkel, you have these fins on. They’re plastic, and they’re sharp. So, I was trying to orient my body away from her, but also keep her in my sights. And at one point I did look up, because I knew that we were being carried by the current. And the boat was this, like, small white object in the distance.


DUCKWORTH: I could see the captain at that point. And he was waving at us and telling us to come in, because we were not in the right direction. And we were obviously getting farther and farther from the boat. So, anxiety level now — I don’t know, four? So, I go and try to gesture to my mom. You’ve got to use pantomime when you’re snorkeling. And I point, and she sort of nods. I swim a little bit in front of her, and I turn around, and she’s not there.

DUBNER: Oh, boy.

DUCKWORTH: So, now anxiety level: 4.5? And then I see her. And I swim back toward her. And I grab her hand, and now anxiety goes to five, because my mother’s hand is totally limp. And then, I flip her over, and she’s gray. Blue. And she’s got these unblinking fish eyes. And I rip off her mask and her snorkel, and I try to talk to her, but she’s completely unresponsive. I mean, Stephen, I think it’s as close as you can get to basically being with a dead body, which I thought she was. I was like, “My mother has drowned.”

DUBNER: But we should say, you’re not catastrophizing now, because you’ve got an actual catastrophe.

DUCKWORTH: The reason I think our bodies and our minds are capable of getting to a five on the anxiety scale is that catastrophes happen. So, at this point, I’m having a completely appropriate fight-or-flight response. Everything is on. Cortisol was just rushing into my body. I take off her mask, and I take the snorkel out of her mouth. And her head is very heavy. So, I had to tread water and hold her head up with my left hand so that her nose and her mouth could stay above water. And I was not wearing a life vest, and didn’t have a noodle. And then with my right hand, I had to wave wildly — I felt like I was in a movie. There was something very cliché about it. I was like, “Help! Somebody help me! My mother’s dying!”

DUBNER: So, thank God you’re a good swimmer. This must have been so scary. I know the end of the story, which is that she survived. So, does this mean that you somehow dragged your mother through the water and got her onto the boat?

DUCKWORTH: So, let me fast forward, then, through what happened next. In that moment, there was a flash of, like, “Oh, this is where you give up. Why am I treading water and screaming and screaming when my mother’s already dead?” And in that moment, I kept treading water, and I kept screaming, and I kept waving, even though at some level it seemed like all hope was lost. This is what happened next. The captain saw us. And he drove the boat to us. And he was able to drag my mother’s listless body onto the deck. At that point, there was already another snorkeling instructor who had seen what was going on, left his boat, dove into the ocean, and was already on deck. And he immediately administered C.P.R. By the way, in the middle of the Omicron spike, with no thought to his own personal safety. His name is Jeff, by the way. And I have been trying to find him. I’ve been, like, Google searching, “Snorkeling instructors named Jeff in the Florida Keys.” So, if you’re listening, please let me know. I would love to give you everything I own.

DUBNER: What’s the name of the other guy, though?

DUCKWORTH: I am not going to say, because I have to say, I think there were serious errors in judgment, and I’m not a litigious person. The boat ride back, Stephen, just to give you a sense of how incredibly stressful this whole thing was — so, yes, my mother is starting to breathe. So, now I’m thinking, like, “Great, now I have a brain-dead mother. Yay.” The captain picks up Jason, Amanda, Lucy so they’re not abandoned in the middle of the ocean. And we go back to shore so quickly that — I kid you not — Lucy, who is 18 years old and very athletic — subsequently had to see an orthopedic surgeon for nerve damage. It was such a rough ride back. And the way that we got my mother back is my husband Jason laid on one side of her. I laid on her other. We put her head onto some balled-up sweatshirts. We braced ourselves and her body between us by holding on to a bench on the deck. And that whole time, Stephen, I was literally praying to God. And here’s the weird thing I said. This is a digression. But I said, “God, if you save my mother, I won’t be jealous anymore.” I will need years of therapy to figure out why that came out of my mouth.

DUBNER: You won’t be jealous of who?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know! I don’t know. That’s just the promise I made God.

DUBNER: So, your mother lived. Does this mean you’ve had to strike jealousy from your—?

DUCKWORTH: From my heart. I had a lot of time to think about it, because my mother went from the E.R. to the I.C.U., to the regular hospital, to being discharged, to now being — happy ending— a seemingly healthy now-87-year-old, at home making dumplings. She’s wonderfully lucky to be alive.

DUBNER: And how does she see this incident in her mind and memory?

DUCKWORTH: So, if my father was a catastrophizer, then my mother was the opposite. The first thing the E.R. doctor said is, “I just need to tell you that in instances like this, where there has been lack of oxygen to the brain for who knows how long, like, your mother’s quite elderly—” So, he’s kind of preparing me for the worst, right? But then, later he was like, “I don’t want to say for sure, but I’m optimistic.” And I said, “Why?” He was like, “Well, she wanted to show me her artwork on her iPhone.” And I was like, “That’s a good sign.” So, as pessimistic and depressive as my dad was growing up, my mom was just, like, a ray of sunshine, even on a rainy day. So, my mom immediately thought to herself, “Oh, it’s such a wonderful thing that this happened. I got to spend time with you in this hospital room.”

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how to gain perspective when the worst-case scenario is all you can visualize.

DUBNER: Oh my God, this is going to ruin us in so many ways.

*     *     *

Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about catastrophizing, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the subject. We asked listeners to let us know what you find to be most helpful when your anxiety feels out of control. Here’s what you said:

Jeff ERICKSON: A recent tool I’ve been using to deal with anxiety and other undesirable emotions is diner theory. Let me give you an example. When I had to slam on my brakes the other day to avoid hitting the car in front of me, I pictured myself in a 1950s diner with a gum-chewing waitress, who, with notebook in hand, asked me, “Would you like some unproductive anger with that order of slamming on the brakes?” To which, my answer was, “Not today, thanks.” It just helps me to separate my emotional reaction, which I control, from the circumstances, which I cannot. That waitress, in my mind, has recently asked me about all sorts of things: unrealistic catastrophizing, toxic comparison, excessive rumination. If a 50s waitress isn’t your thing, you could think of a staunch English butler — or even a caddy if you’re a golfer like Dubner.

Carla WEIL: Hi, this is Carla Weil. My son inherited anxiety from me, and we have what we call the “anxiety hotline” where one of us will call the other when we’re feeling very anxious. We will talk about the catastrophizing thoughts in our mind. Saying them out loud to someone who’s non-judgmental allows us to see how absurd the thoughts are, and we go away feeling better.

Danielle KAPLAN: Hi, Stephen and Angela. My name is Danielle. I’m from Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I get anxious, one of the things I always remind myself is that this feeling won’t last forever. So, just kind of accepting that feeling and reminding myself that it will all be over soon.

That was, respectively: Jeff Erikson, Carla Weil, and Danielle Kaplan. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about fear, anxiety, and snorkeling in the Florida Keys.

DUBNER: First of all, I’m really sorry you and your whole family went through that.

DUCKWORTH: It was traumatic.

DUBNER: This may sound bizarre, but this story — as tragic as it is with a happy ending — it makes me think, especially in context of our conversation about catastrophizing, about Ukraine and Russia. I think about your father, who I never knew. I think about your mother, who I haven’t met, but I feel I know her pretty well from this—

DUCKWORTH: Oh! You should come and have dumplings. She would love to make you dumplings.

DUBNER: I would love that.

DUCKWORTH: And show you her artwork.

DUBNER: I would also like to see the artwork. I know you pretty well. I know Jason, your girls a little bit, and so on. So, I’m imagining this whole scenario. And I’m imagining how every individual has a different level of expectation and anxiety. And you’ve described how it was working in this case. And I guess the cynic in me — or maybe from hanging around with economists for too long — thinks, “Well, let’s look at the incentives.” This captain had an incentive to make it work this day, because he doesn’t get paid otherwise — even though it sounds like the water was pretty choppy, and even though maybe this client base wasn’t optimized toward snorkeling on this day, and so on. But you think about how an individual may approach a given scenario, and the level of danger that you foresee. And the reason that it makes me think about Russia and Ukraine is: It’s been such a strange scenario playing out. I mean, as we speak, we’re about a month into this invasion. By the time people hear this, who knows how many developments may have occurred. But if you look at the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a lot of European countries were blaming the U.S. and Britain for catastrophizing the events on the ground there. For weeks leading up to the war, President Biden was saying that U.S. Intelligence showed that Putin had already decided to invade. British intelligence was saying that not only was Russia planning to invade, but they had plans already to get rid of Zelensky and install a pro-Russian leader. Zelensky himself, on the other hand, was telling the U.S. and Britain, especially, to calm down. Let’s not panic.

DUCKWORTH: Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.

DUBNER: And there’ve been many theories as to why he was saying that. One was to project calm from leadership. One was to not send the Ukrainian economy into a spiral. One was to not lead Ukrainians to flee, and so on. And so, when we look now, we see that: well, is it a catastrophe? Yeah, it’s pretty hard not to call it a catastrophe. On the other hand, it does seem that humans are prone to expect the very worst. You think about whenever a new technology comes along, it seems like the first instinct is to notice and magnify its flaws, and ignore its benefits. And ultimately, most technologies end up benefiting a lot of people. But the first wave is to say, “Oh my God, this is going to ruin us in so many ways.” I think about how we feel about social media at the moment. I think about how we feel about cryptocurrencies at the moment. It’s very easy to make the panic arguments against them. And so, to me, this notion of catastrophizing is a deep, deep, deep riddle. Because one doesn’t want to ignore obvious risks, even if they’re relatively small risks. I mean, when I hear the story of your mom and the boat, it’s like one of those terrible movies where you want to jump onto the screen and say, “No!”

DUCKWORTH: Right. “Don’t go down into the basement!”


DUCKWORTH: It’s a kind of existential question, Stephen, right? Because how do you know when it’s a catastrophe? And how do you know when you’re catastrophizing? You really can’t know, subjectively.

DUBNER: Right. Risk assessors, and economists, and other scholars, they talk about the low-probability high-risk event, which is: Yes, the worst thing probably won’t happen, but if it will, it’s really devastating. So, let me get back to the original question: For a person who finds themselves catastrophizing, what do you suggest? Because this piece by Linda Blair in The Guardian had some very concrete suggestions. I have no idea how useful these would be. She suggests establishing a regular “worry time” to stop it from invading your entire life. Another piece of advice she gives is to use what she calls the “best friend test,” which is: Ask yourself how you’d advise your best friend to deal with this concern, and then you take that action yourself. She also suggests learning to “self-soothe,” which is a phrase that I know a lot of people use as a benefit, but I also think about the potential dangers of self-soothing. We’re reading, now, a lot of reports about what’s been going on during the pandemic. If you look at alcohol-related deaths, drug overdoses, and car crashes, those are all substantially up. So, those are a lot of really negative downstream effects of the pandemic, some of which are the result of what I would consider “self-soothing.” So, where do you come down on this? What’s some practical advice?

DUCKWORTH: There’s practical advice that I can give you. It comes, actually, from Tim Beck, who was really the pioneer in understanding catastrophizing, and the godfather of modern psychotherapy. At the same time, I will say that if you really feel like you are somebody who has a problem with this, the answer is not to listen to No Stupid Questions. The answer is to go and seek therapy. So, what did the architect of modern psychotherapy say about catastrophizing, and what are some of the practical things that you do learn about with a therapist in a session? The whole point is to get to more accurate, non-distorted understandings of reality. One tactic is to think of three possible futures. The first one is the catastrophe scenario: the worst possible thing that can happen. You’re driving down to the Florida Keys with your family. You’re eating sandwiches in the car. And you think to yourself, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen today? Oh, I don’t know. My mother could drown next to me, snorkeling.” That’s the worst possible. Then you think, “What is the best possible scenario? Okay. The best possible scenario is I learned that I super love snorkeling, and it’s the best vacation of our lives.” And then you think, “Well, what is the most likely scenario? I guess the most likely scenario is somewhere in between.” But what it does is: it gives you an upper bound, a lower bound, and some way of thinking about odds in a less extreme way. Now, would we have turned around, and gone back to Miami, and said, “Having looked at the worst, best, and most likely scenarios, I no longer want to do this?” I mean, prepaying for an airline flight is in the same category as prepaying for a snorkeling trip. It’s like, “Well, we’re already on the hook for the money.” I don’t want to say that this is a technique that is going to help in every case. But I do think it does one very key thing that is important for all of us in life, which is to put things in proper perspective. And that is the major error that people make in catastrophizing, is that you’re not putting things in perspective. You are only looking at one of those three scenarios. And, like I said, I don’t know whether it would have changed my Christmas Eve, but it is generally something that I think is helpful.

DUBNER: Tim Beck, when he described catastrophizing as a sort of cognitive route, or maybe even a bias, were there others that were available to a given person in a similar situation like that that were more or less damaging?

DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know whether there’s, like, a rank-ordered list that I can give you. But Tim Beck indeed found that our thoughts can be distorted in other ways, too. And I’ll just use this example: minimizing. Like, you’re in an abusive relationship and you’re completely being traumatized as a person, but you then minimize it. The idea of cognitive therapy is that, when you have a disorder of emotion, what is really going on is that you have a disorder of thought.

DUBNER: I think if we had to put a headline on this conversation, it would be something like “Grit Scholar Shows Christmas Eve Grit by Hauling Her Dead-Seeming Mother Back to Snorkeling Boat. Mother Survives, Continues Making Art That E.R. Doctors Around the World Are Now Scrambling to Purchase.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, my mother is really going to like the end of that. She’s going to make you dumplings, Stephen, to celebrate.

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Stephen and Angela wonder about the dimensions of a molehill. The hills, which mark a system of underground tunnels that moles reside in, are typically five to eight inches high and less than 12 inches in diameter. By comparison, most geologists classify a mountain as a landform that rises at least 1,000 feet above its surrounding area. Mount Everest, Earth’s highest mountain above sea level, is 29,032 feet — or approximately 58,000 times the height of a typical molehill.

Also, Stephen expresses skepticism at clinical psychologist Linda Blair’s suggestion that learning to self-soothe can be an effective means to combat catastrophizing. While drugs and alcohol are obviously used as a means of self-soothing, in the article, Blair was specifically referring to tools like breathing exercises and confidence-building techniques.

Finally, Stephen asks Angela about cognitive biases similar to catastrophizing, and Angela mentions “minimizing.” These types of thought patterns are called “cognitive distortions,” and cognitive behavioral therapists use a list of different distortions to help patients identify and correct destructive ways of thinking. In addition to catastrophizing and minimizing, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches how to address “polarized thinking,” “overgeneralization,” “emotional reasoning,” “jumping to conclusions,” and several other distortions that we’ll link to in our show notes.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: a listener writes to Stephen and Angela about the unexpected way that she dealt with grief.

DUBNER: “He’s alive,” I said over and over to myself in my head. Suddenly, my stomachache and my headache ebbed. Repeating denial words made me feel physically better.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to know: what helps you the most during times of grief. Is it structure? Sharing memories of the person who died? Maybe it’s a favorite song or a poem. To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to with the subject line “Grief.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute. Maybe we’ll include them on the show!

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: I’ve seen you ignore every set of instructions you’ve ever encountered.

DUCKWORTH: What?! Look at you, judgy Stephen.

DUBNER: I don’t mean to be judgy. I mean to be factual here. It’s an insult for sure, but it’s a factual insult.

Read full Transcript