Catastrophizing is an under-discussed source of anxiety…and how to ameliorate it.
“She’ll find out about my affair, divorce me, and take me to the cleaners!”
“They’ll put me in jail after that IRS audit!”
“What if that headache is brain cancer?!”
Catastrophizing occurs when you focus on the worst-case scenario. That, of course, can make you anxious.
Perhaps this internal dialogue will help you reduce your catastrophizing:
PERSON: It’s worth anticipating the worst case so you can prepare for it.
ALTER EGO: That’s rationalizing your desire for excitement.
PERSON: What do you mean?
ALTER EGO: In some crazy way, you feel it’s worth being anxious in exchange for being able to think you’re facing something big.
PERSON: I think you’re overanalyzing.
ALTER EGO: Even if so, you know as well as I do that, usually, there’s plenty time to react to the worst-case scenario when you know it’s likely to occur.
PERSON: But my catastrophizing s visceral. As soon as I think about my affair, my IRS audit, an ambiguous pain, I immediately jump to that worst case. If the worry turns out to be exaggerated, fine. If not, I’ve planned for it.
ALTER EGO: But with 100% certainty, you’ve made yourself anxious, usually for nothing. And it becomes a growing habit: The more often you catastrophize, the more you catastrophize life’s myriad ambiguities.Sooner rather than later, you’ve turned into an overall worrywart, an unhappy, anxious person. Not only does that devastate your peace of mind, it likely physically damages you. Everyone knows that stress is unhealthy.
PERSON: Rationally, I know it’s wise to not catastrophize but I can’t make myself stop.
ALTER EGO: Two techniques offer a good chance of reducing your catastrophizing to a more manageable level.
PERSON: I’m all ears.
ALTER EGO: The first is to face that worst case. Let’s say your spouse finds about your affair and divorces you. That’s survivable. It might even be in your best interest.
PERSON: Not with the courts likely to take me to the cleaners.
ALTER EGO: You’re catastrophizing again. The chances of her finding out, then divorcing you because of it, and then the court taking you to the cleaners is tiny. Yet, with 100% certifude, you’re making yourself crazy. And it certainly is taking away much of your affair’s pleasure. If it’s really bugging you that much, should you end the affair?
PERSON: I’m not ready to do that yet. And what about the IRS example? I’m not a crook but I’m not a saint. Could you imagine if they sent me to jail? Imagine what that must be like! And just imagine how my wife would feel?! My kids?! My friends?!
ALTER EGO: You’re catastrophizing again. Unless you’re defrauding the government of large amounts of money, they’ll just make you pay the tax plus a penalty. Life will go on. And in the worst case, which is very unlikely, and you have to go to jail for a year, is there not some possibility that it won’t be that bad: a year away from the existence you’ll live for decades? Meeting very different people? A chance to slow down, think, and reassess your life? And I hear prisoners get better health care than most people get. You’re not going to an ISIS prison. This is the U.S.
PERSON: Don’t tell me you can put a happy face on a headache that turns out to be brain cancer.
ALTER EGO: Of course, that’s the toughest example but even there, you can constructively or less-constructively face the highly unlikely worst case: that it’s brain cancer and you have only six months to live, the last month in pain that can only partly be cut by morphine.
PERSON: Yup, that’s about as bad as it could get.
ALTER EGO: I agree but there’s even a bit that’s positive about that. And, if you’re strong, you could choose to redirect at least some of your angst to that.
PERSON: What do you mean?
ALTER EGO: Some, although certainly not most, people with terminal cancer have said that their imminent mortality enables them for the first time to treasure life’s simple pleasures: listening to a piece of music, their child’s voice, even just a minute without pain. And really, is your life so great? Might it be a bit of a relief to replace all your life’s stress and anxiety, all that catastrophization, with the long sleep? And remember, thanks to ever more states allowing the right to die, if life’s pain outweighs the pleasure, you can end it with a pleasant overdose.
PERSON: I’m not convinced but I suppose that trying to put a positive spin on the worst case isn’t a bad technique. It certainly can’t hurt. You said there was a second technique for dealing with catastrophization.
ALTER EGO: It’s the Stop and Distract technique. It’s deceptively simple: The first nanosecond you’re aware that you’re probably catastrophizing, say to yourself or even aloud, “Stop” and make a rational assessment of whether additional thought about that worst-case scenario serves you. If you decide it doesn’t, force yourself to redirect your attention to something more constructive: something to work on have fun with. That may be a simple strategy but it’s potent.
PERSON; Why is that potent?
ALTER EGO: Because the more you think about something, for example, the worst-case scenario, the stronger the memory neurons associated with that thought are. It’s like a muscle—The more you use it, the bigger it gets. Conversely, if you stop thinking the catastrophizing thought the moment you’re aware of it, the memory neurons associated with it atrophy. Net result: You’re a less anxious person.
PERSON: But if I stop to think that catastrophizing makes me anxious, which is unhealthy, that in itself makes me anxious!
ALTER EGO: Right.That’s called secondary anxiety: being anxious about being anxious. The Stop and Distract technique works well in countering that, indeed, all sources of anxiety.
PERSON: I hate to admit it but I think it’s worth trying both techniques:
1. Facing the worst case and realizing it may not be as bad as you fear, and just maybe you might even be better for it.
2. Using the Stop and Distract technique for whatever you’re anxious about so you’re atrophying the memory neurons associated with the catastrophizing thought and strengthening the memory neurons associated with more positive thoughts.
ALTER EGO: Right. Nothing to lose, and unlike getting drunk or stoned to avoid thinking catastrophizing thoughts, those two techniques have no negative side effects.
PERSON: You make me nuts with your preaching. I need a glass of wine.