Catastrophizing

by Monica Ross

Catastrophizing is the next unhelpful thinking style. A person who uses this thinking style often gets accused of blowing things out of proportion. So how might this go? This could come through in many ways. Let’s say that a person gets pulled over for speeding at a time when they are struggling as it is to pay the rent. Or maybe, things were going along well at work and then one day a person gets brought into their boss’s office and told they are being terminated because the company needs to cut costs.

Maybe someone finds out that their application for housing didn’t go through. Or maybe they didn’t get that transfer they had been hoping for. If someone says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “It’s not as bad as it seems” it could be that they are noticing that a person is taking whatever situation has recently happened and perseverating on the horribleness of it.

There’s a children’s book that comes to mind that addresses this topic. It was written in 1972 by Judith Viorst. It’s called Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. You can find it here.

Judith wrote another very good book called Necessary Losses that I often recommend. It deals with the topic of letting go of things from an adult perspective.  She's written several books on the topic of psychology.

So these things start out early. These unhelpful thinking styles are learned behavior in a way and the good news is that they can be unlearned. That is what we’re doing in therapy.

A person who is catastrophizing might feel themselves spinning out of control with anxiety as they think about the “what if” scenarios. “What if I’m not able to pay my rent?” “What if I can’t find another job in the next six months when my unemployment runs out?” “What if I’m not able to obtain housing for the semester?” “What if I’m not able to transfer positions?”

In all of these scenarios there are things that pertain to the situation that are within our scope of control and things that are outside of our scope of control. The goal is to take care of the things that we can take of by problem solving and then to let go of the rest.

Think of the serenity prayer—“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a beautiful prayer. Classic. Timeless.  The basic message of the prayer is don't catastrophize, if you can help it.

Avoiding the tendency to catastrophize is not an easy thing to do for people who suffer from anxiety. With worrying sometimes we think that by the very act of holding the problem in our conscious thoughts at all times and putting effort into the worrying about it, that somehow momentum is being gained. We think the problem is being worked on by the very act of our being hypervigilant and aware of it.

We can even feel the tension in our bodies as we dwell  on the problem.  Maybe it's that if we can physically feel that tension we think it must account for something, as well.  Think of the animal who sticks his hand in the trap for the food and pulls and strains to get his hand out out.  The animal too maybe thinks, well I must be getting somewhere look at all the effort I'm putting into this.  But it's got to let go of the food in order to get it's hand back out.

It can become a difficult concept to understand that by letting go, we are actually reclaiming our power in the situation.  I’m the first to say that awareness of an issue is the first step in resolving it, but at the same time awareness alone does nothing. Keeping guard of the issue by not letting it out of our constant thoughts, never taking a break from it, doesn’t necessarily do anything for us either.

Think of it this way, have you ever worked on a project and then stepped away from it for awhile? Maybe you worked on it for several hours and were feeling stuck and then you left to grab something to eat and came back to it with a different perspective?

Maybe you dropped all thoughts of it for awhile and then found that when you returned you had renewed interest in it or a renewed approach? Something may have shifted in the process of distraction for awhile. Stepping away can increase our ability to creatively problem solve whatever the issue is.

This article in the Scientific American talks about something called the DMN or default mode network. It’s the mode we occupy often while daydreaming. What research has taught us is that when we think we are daydreaming and while we are in those distracted states our brains are collecting information in the background and processing and integrating information from other regions of the brain in complex ways.

For some this offers relief and comfort. We can let go of holding on to those anxious thoughts and if the thought of letting those thoughts out of our sight, as it were bothers us, well then just know that our brains are working on the issue whatever it is anyway and without our even consciously thinking about it. Taking a break actually works to our advantage. We can get some rest and come back.

Catastrophizing has been addressed in other ways with the “Let go and let God” or “Let go and the let the universe” concept. Without the need to rely on religiosity or even mysticism per se just know that the brain is handling the issue. Think of it as the "do nothing" or "be still" approach.  I posted a video recently on my facebook page about this approach.  You can find that link here.

It turns out that even with the do nothing approach, something is being done. We are coming to state of rest and mindfulness orientedness within ourselves as we let go of the anxiety. As we are resting the world around us might be humming with activity, putting other forces and scenarios into play.

So that even within the course of an hour, or a day, or a week, or a month we never step into the same river twice. We over time and even within the span of a day grow and learn. So that we always come back to the issue as a different person as it were and with a different approach. The river or problem if you want to think of it that way, it too, changes as it flows along.

I’m not trying to get super esoteric here and I hope I haven’t lost anyone yet. The point being that when we are rested, when we allow those moments of rest, we’ll have the ability to better tackle whatever new issues arise in addition to approaching the old from a steadier ground.