When you catastrophize, you blow things out of proportion.
So how might this one go?
Let’s say you get pulled over for speeding at a time when you’re really struggling with some other life stressor like managing a major project that just got handed to you at work. Friends and family may be picking up on your stress and making comments like “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “It’s not as bad as it seems.”
It could be that they’re noticing you’re taking whatever situation has recently happened and focusing on the horribleness of it, without considering things might actually turn out better than you think.
This in essence is CATASTROPHIZING.
In 1972 Judith Viorst wrote a book to address this tendency with children Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. You might remember it? You can find it here.
Point being, these things start out early. Unhelpful thinking styles are simply learned behaviors and the good news is they can be unlearned! That is what we’ll be working on in therapy.
Instead of spinning out of control with anxiety as you think about the “what if” scenarios.
“What if I screw up this new project?”
”They never should have given this to me last minute! I’m going to ruin it!”
”What if I’m not able to finish the other one I’m working on in time? Why does this always happen to me!”
With all of these “what if’s” there are things that pertain to the situation that are within your scope of control and things that are outside of your scope.
Take care of the things that you can take care of by problem-solving. Start small to avoid overwhelm and then tackle the rest.
You may have heard of the serenity prayer?
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s a beautiful prayer. Timeless. Many secular organizations have used it. The basic message is the same.
Avoiding the tendency to catastrophize is not an easy thing to do when you suffer from anxiety. Sometimes you think the problem is being worked on by the very act of holding at all times in your consciousness. As if holding the dreaded thing that you don’t want to have happen in your thoughts is somehow a way of working out the worry.
You might even feel the tension in your body as you think about the problem. Maybe in the act of physically feeling that tension, your body feels as though it too is doing something just by the act of holding on.
Think about this metaphor. There’s a monkey who sticks its hand in the cage for food and pulls and strains to get his hand out as he holds the piece of food in his balled up fist. He, too, maybe thinks the effort I’m putting into this struggling to get my hand back out is bound to yield results.
But it’s the OPPOSITE.
In letting go of the food his hand eases. He can now slip his hand out.
It can become a difficult to understand that by letting go, you are actually reclaiming your power. 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 your constant thoughts, never taking a break from it, doesn’t necessarily do anything for you.
Think of it another way, have you ever worked on a creative project and then stepped away from it for a while? Maybe you worked on it for several hours and were feeling stuck and then you left to grab something to grab some water and came back to it with a different perspective?
Maybe you dropped all thoughts of it for a while 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 your 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 you occupy often while daydreaming. What research has taught us is that when you think you are daydreaming and while you are in those distracted states your brain is 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. You can let go of holding on to those anxious thoughts and if the thought of letting those thoughts out of your sight, as it were bothers you, well then just know that your brain is working on the issue whatever it is anyway and without our even consciously thinking about it. Taking a break actually works to your advantage.
You 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 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 even at rest. So giving yourself a break can be another helpful approach.
Think of it as the “do-nothing” approach.
It turns out that even with the do-nothing approach, something is being done. You are coming to state of rest and mindfulness as you let go of the anxiety. In that place of stillness the world around you 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 you never step into the same river twice. You over time and even within the span of a day grow and learn. In other words, you 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 is that when you are rested, when you allow those moments of rest, you’ll have the ability to better tackle whatever new issue arises in addition to approaching the old from a place of groundedness.