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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Catastrophizing

I learned a new word today, catastrophizing.  It describes a mental health condition, a thought pattern if you will that leads people to assume the worst when confronted by information or circumstances beyond their control.  Psychologists observe that this disorder leads to over thinking and in the most extreme cases, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and doom. 

 

The current state of the world, our political climate, and the accompanying and extreme polarity it engenders can even intrude upon our daily lives.  Add to this, economic hardship for a great many, and free-floating anxiety about any number of real and imagined crises, not least the possibility of a third world or civil conflict, and there is sufficient basis for widespread fear, uncertainty or doubt.  What rational person doesn’t harbor a degree of apprehension these days? 

 

When our feelings of discomfort are heightened further by foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns created by those intent on dividing us as a nation, and a Congress, and local legislators more interested in fomenting anger, fear and panic as election fodder than addressing genuine issues it is a wonder more of us aren’t catastrophizing. 

 

The antidote, Psychologists say, is to apply in-the-moment grounding and big-picture reframing whenever one feels headed off the emotional cliff.  Without immediate intervention, a downward spiraling thought process can lead to an emotional breakdown—an anxiety attack or worse.  They suggest the following techniques to aid us in arresting the negative avalanche.

 

When gloomy thoughts first intrude, they counsel that we should stop internalizing and projecting ourselves into circumstances. We are not our thoughts—much less thoughts that arise from what we read or hear, from momentary situations.  The universe is a big place—bigger than us.  Not everything that happens, in fact most of what happens day in and day out has nothing to do with us.  So, get over yourself.  Just because your boss asked for a meeting, or your friend didn’t return a phone call right away doesn’t mean you are about to be fired or friendless. At this precise moment in time the world will keep spinning, and that is all we can really count on, the present.  What might, could or will happen we do not and cannot know.  We don’t need self-fulfilling prophecies of doom to urge us over the cliff.

 

It is also important to remind ourselves of those things that are not going to hell in a handbasket—even if they seem less significant.  Everyday positive things are happening, but we do not typically assume that when good occurs it leads to more good, in the way we assume bad engenders worse. And speaking of worse, it is important to lean-in to feelings of dread and confront them.  Play out the doomsday scenario to its conclusion and let it lead you to consider what you could or would do should it actually occur.  Doing so can help you construct plans-and more importantly give you back some sense of control over the situation. The feeling of being at the mercy of the fates is so often the trigger for catastrophizing. Inwardly we know that we ultimately have no control over anything, except perhaps out own thoughts, but we don’t like being reminded of the fact.

 

Early intervention can also divert the onset of escalating negativity.  Get out of your immediate environment—if you can, take a walk—out in nature ideally, but any place where your attention can be diverted to the tangible world and not that inner yammering voice.  Once you are in a more positive frame of mind try shifting your thoughts into problem solving mode, or if the circumstances involve issues which you personally cannot affect, allow yourself to consider who is addressing them and what they are doing to set things on a more positive course. You are not alone.

 

Bad things happen—we hope they won’t happen to us though we know that it is the rare person who does not ever have to deal with adversity, even catastrophe in their lives.  So, we need to accept that it may happen to us or those we care for. We don’t want that to happen but our attitude in response to catastrophe is the one thing we can control –even if we are enveloped by grief. 


Above all else, faith is essential. For those who practice a religion faith in a positive outcome may come naturally, although the most pious of us can be plagued by doubt or disenfranchisement. Even if you are not religious, faith in the Universe, in humanity, in yourself, your family or friends are your shields against chaos and calamity. Turning to them in times of impending crises, whether real or imagined can blunt the forces of fear, and uncertainty.

 

I made a good friend at a certain point in my life when I was dealing with a catastrophic, likely terminal, disease affecting a loved one.   My friend, Bob, was in similar circumstances, only he was the patient, and he knew that despite every intervention over a ten-year period, he was dying. Every day we would find each other at the morning clinic when various medical tests were done.  The tests monitored signs of progression or, hopefully, regression of the disease.  Almost everyone, myself included, was in a constant state of apprehension as we awaited results.  Even no change was welcome rather than a report indicating a worsening condition. Unlike the rest of us, however, Bob faced each day with remarkable equanimity. I asked him how he was able to remain untroubled and he answered that after so many years of sitting in waiting rooms anxious over results he had come to the conclusion that the news was never as good as he had hoped or as bad as he had feared.

 

That is a pretty good note on which to end this post.  Tomorrow will come.  Chances are, it won’t be as good as we hoped or as bad as we feared—those are words to live by.

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