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The Fine Art of Catastrophizing: How to Find Perspective in the Spiral

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People, let me assure you, I am a grade A catastrophizer. I have it down to a fine art. Not only can I turn molehills into mountains, I can turn little green caterpillars into fire-breathing dragons.

Catastrophizing is like really advanced worrying. We all worry — it’s unnatural to have nary a care, ever. Worrying can provide us with the opportunity to find potential solutions to potential problems. It is a way of mentally preparing for things that might reasonably be expected to happen.

Catastrophizing is the next level up.

It is apparently associated with chronic pain, depressionanxiety, and fatigue. I don’t experience chronic pain — except for my slow-healing Achilles tendinopathy. But I do experience depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I’m not sure if my catastrophizing is a learned behavior or just the way I was born, but either way, I’m really good at it.

I used to be an eternal optimist — always looking at the bright side and hoping for the best. But slowly, somewhere along the way, I learned hoping for the best doesn’t always bring the best. So, I started to practice preparing for the worst. And I have to say, usually, the worst-case scenario does not come to pass and then I have the opportunity to be both surprised and relieved. Which are happy outcomes, but in the meantime, I imagine all the disasters.

Catastrophizing is anxiety-inducing, and for me, illogical. I don’t have anxiety about my health, so I don’t really worry a chipped toenail will turn into a brain tumor. But I do have anxiety about other people — their well-being and my interactions with them. I want the best for everybody. And when I do something, I want to do the best I can and make things as smooth and easy for others as possible. I spend a lot of time worrying other people will become unwell (or die) or I’m not going to be “good enough” for them. Whatever “good enough” actually means.

I don’t think these are unreasonable desires.

Caring about the welfare of others is surely not a bad thing. Is it? But with my natural tendency to amplify worry, I become very anxious about doing the right thing. And as part of that anxiety, I imagine all the wrong things that can happen. All the wrong things. Like every single possible thing that could go wrong in a situation. And then I try to problem-solve all these worst-case scenarios and proceed to draw more tragedy from the already nonexistent problem.

If, for example, I am catering for a dinner, I will agonize over the decision as to what to cook. So many things could go wrong. And I will have so much agony over the decision, I will end up at the point of deciding it’s all far too hard and I had probably best cancel dinner.

I won’t actually cancel dinner. And I will do my very best to present a vaguely edible, non-allergenic, not-poisonous, congenial meal. But my heart will pound for a day and I’ll be terrified of the embarrassment. Especially terrified of the possibility of running out of food. At least, that’s what I used to be like.

Now I have different skills.

One of the upsides to being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is that I have received psychological support — which I have received for many years now. And as part of my therapy I have learned to — a lot of the time — deescalate the catastrophe in my head. To try and gain perspective.

Part of my perspective-gaining strategy is to actually look at the worst-case scenarios and decide if they are: a) even plausible, b) potentially solvable, and c) if I can survive it.

So, at my worst-case scenario dinner party I try to remember a) I’m not going to accidentally poison anyone, b) I can always over-cater to ensure I don’t run out of food, and c) I resign myself to the fact that no matter how well the dinner party does or does not go, the sun will still rise tomorrow.

In dialectical behavior therapy  (DBT) terms, I’m a) fact-checking, b) problem-solving, and c) radically accepting the situation. And I do all this inside my head. Quite quickly sometimes. These tools are very useful for genuine real-life problems (how to deal with a bill you can’t pay) as well as those fire-breathing dragon-caterpillar problems (everyone will get food poisoning at my dinner party).

Perspective folks, perspective.

It is easy when worrying — be it about the weather, traffic, health, travel, relationships, work, finances, what to watch next on Netflix — to let the small become big. And then to let the big get bigger.

The thing that works best for me is to write. Write, write, write. I have a journal full of pity-party worst-case scenarios that I have put in perspective simply by the act of writing. I know writing is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it.

Some people like to talk, it is a most useful therapy. That’s what therapy often is — talking about shit and getting a handle on how to deal with it. Talking things through can deescalate the silent conversation going on inside your head. I find talking a lot more difficult than writing. Just knowing I have to talk to somebody brings out my fire-breathing dragons. But I will be the first to acknowledge, once the talking is done, the flames have usually been doused.

Some people like to engage in self-care activities that help them to mentally gain perspective like hiking, bubble baths, pet therapy, art. There are as many options as there are people. It’s a silent conversation with yourself that looks at all possibilities — not just the terrifying ones.

Let it be known, however, that whiskey, sleeping tablets, and corn chips are not recommended as long-term strategies. There are as many maladaptive options as there are people, so a little bit of self-reflection doesn’t go astray. If your coping strategy is aimed at making you emotionally numb, then perhaps it’s time to crack out a pen or phone a friend.

The vast majority of catastrophes in my life have never come to pass, and those that have — well, I have survived them. And the next disaster I dream up will also pass. Probably quite smoothly, and if not, I will be OK anyway.

Getty image by StudioM1

Originally published: January 14, 2022
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