July 28, 2019

When Life Is a Catastrophe

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.” —John Milton

“Why isn’t he opening my message? He always opens them. Immediately.”

I wait. Then I call.

No answer.

I wait five minutes more and call again.

No answer.

My heart starts to beat faster.

He still hasn’t opened my message. I call for the third time.

No answer.

In my head, I’m coaching myself through a crisis of life and death.

“Ok, if he doesn’t show up at 4:30, I’m going to have to ask Angie to drive me home.”


“And she’s going to have to come into the house with me in case he’s fallen down the stairs and is dead. I can’t be alone if he’s dead.”

I open my purse. See my medication.

“No, Heather. You don’t need it.”

I’m not convinced.

“You’re overreacting. He’s probably having a nap or else his phone is on silent.”

I notice my left hand trembling. I have a meeting. I’ll keep my hand on my lap so no one sees.

“Go home. Now.”

No. My rational mind knows there’s no problem. I head off to my meeting.

This, my friends, is how the anxious brain works.

This incident didn’t happen years ago. It happened just weeks ago when Raymond didn’t immediately open my message about what time to pick me up after work. He hadn’t fallen down the stairs. Indeed, he’d silenced his phone while he took a nap and then forgot to put the volume back on.

There’s a name for this tendency to expect the worst, this habitual and unconscious pattern of unrealistic thinking and negative exaggeration.

It’s called catastrophizing.

Although I’m getting better at considering less dire possibilities, I still have a tendency to assume the worst-case scenario. Left alone in my mind, little problems can turn themselves into big catastrophes. I can create issues for myself where none exist.

I bet you’ve done some catastrophizing yourself from time to time. But why? I think there could be any number of reasons. Maybe you have an anxiety disorder like me. Or perhaps you grew up in a family where negative thinking was the norm so you learned to see the world from this point of view. You may have had a difficult past and because of some sort of trauma, you started to see the world as a dangerous place with the result that you literally programmed your brain to be on the lookout
for danger.

Do calm people ever catastrophize? Sometimes. Even an otherwise worry-free person, can occasionally be triggered by a particular circumstance into a scary bout of catastrophic thinking.

This happened to my writing coach Kathleen who is definitely not a worrier. But one night, when her son Cuyler was three, her husband didn’t come home from work as expected. As the minutes passed, she started to tell herself that Tim had been in a car accident. He was dead.

Now Cuyler would grow up without his father. She would be alone, a mess. And Cuyler’s life would be a mess. Kathleen believed this story she was creating in her mind, and she was devastated.

Normally in a circumstance like this, Kathleen wouldn’t have been so worked up. She would have assumed Tim got delayed at work or that he went shopping. But this time was different.

Happily, Tim arrived home safely.

It was only later, upon reflection, that Kathleen made sense of her reaction. Her own father had been killed in a car accident when she was three years old. No wonder she’d reacted the way she did. Her experience shows that catastrophic thinking can happen to anyone and that it’s often situational.

Something I learned recently is that in some people, catastrophizing could be a sign of borderline personality disorder which often features inappropriate and extreme emotional reactions, or histrionic personality disorder which involves the need to be the center of attention to the point where you develop exaggerated stories to achieve that.

Most of us don’t suffer from a personality disorder, thank goodness, but even garden variety catastrophic thinking can have a lot of negative consequences:

  • •inability to reach goals;
  • •feeling “stuck”;
  • •relationship issues;
  • •low self-esteem;
  • •low moods and depression;
  • •insomnia;
  • •increased anxiety; or
  • •physical discomfort, e.g. increased pain.

Now that you know what catastrophizing does to you, how do you STOP? For me, this is a burning question. I’ll give you another example to illustrate why. In mid-September, I’m going on a writing retreat to Greece. How fortunate am I, right? But despite my good fortune, my “monkey brain” is having a heyday:

  1. •How will I sit in a plane that long?
  2. •What if there’s a lot of turbulence?
  3. •What if the plane crashes?
  4. •How will I manage having my routine disrupted for two weeks?
  5. •What will my cats do without me?
  6. •What will Raymond do without me?
  7. •What if I don’t like it there?
  8. •What if I can’t sleep?
  9. •Will the house be in a mess when I get back?
  10. •Will I have to take a couple of extra days off to deal with the jet lag?
  11. •What if I take an anxiety/panic attack related to any of the above?

And on it goes…

(Note to self: Actually writing these fears down on paper seems to help and makes them almost comical.)

But can you see how what is really a lifetime opportunity can also be a source of angst for the anxious, catastrophic mind?

I fall victim to my distorted thinking patterns and forget the inevitable joy that will surround this upcoming retreat on a beautiful Greek island.

Back to the original question: For those of us whose minds seem to be on the brink of catastrophe from time to time (or all the time), how do we STOP it? Through experience, I’ve figured out a few ways that often help pull me back from the brink.

I try to differentiate my thoughts from reality. Let’s re-visit my Greek island anxiety within this context.

  1. •How will I sit in a plane that long?
    I’ll sit there because it’s the only way I’ll get to Greece. And it will be one of the rare times I have to read a
    whole book or write without having to think about any other obligations.
  2. •What if there’s a lot of turbulence?
    Turbulence is generally nothing more than something that’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. Heck, I’m inconvenienced and uncomfortable fairly regularly even though my two feet are on solid ground.
  3. What if the plane crashes?
    The probability of my plane crashing is around one in 5.4 million. Other reports place the odds closer to one in 11 million. To put this into perspective, the odds I’ll die in a car accident are one in 572, and I’m in a car every day!
  4. •How will I manage having my routine disrupted for two weeks?
    I’ll keep some elements of my routine, e.g. go to bed and get up at the same time, exercise and eat meals at the same time, and so forth. For the rest, I’ll go with the flow and relish “living on the edge” a little bit.
  5. •What will my cats do without me? They’ll miss me (I hope), but they’re cats. Raymond will look after them, and when he takes some time to visit his family while I’m away, our neighbour will come in a few times a day to give them food and water, clean their litter boxes, and play with them. They’ll survive.
  6. •What will Raymond do without me?
    He’s a big boy. He’s already planning to spend some of that time with his family in Ontario. Plus, with modern technology, I can communicate with him as much as I want…instantly.
  7. •What if I don’t like it there?
    That’s just foolish. Who wouldn’t love the chance to be on a Greek island? I mean, what isn’t there to like? And I hear that cats roam around everywhere. Heaven!
  8. •What if I can’t sleep?
    Then I’ll meditate. Or read. Or look out the window and see what happens on a Greek island at night.
  9. •Will the house be a mess when I get back?
    No. Raymond is neat and tidy. Anything that isn’t to my liking can be fixed up within an hour.
  10. •Will I have to take a couple of extra days off to deal with the jet lag?
    Maybe and so be it.
  11. •What if I take an anxiety/panic attack related to any of the above?
    I’d say there’s a 40% chance, but I’ve gotten pretty good at just “being there” with anxiety when it surfaces, and the attacks always pass. I’ve also confided my condition to the retreat leader so that she can offer support. In the past, I would have hidden my anxiety. Today, I realize how important it is to bust through secrecy and shame into the more safe and spacious realm of support. For severe episodes, I carry medication.

I try to be mindful. Every day, I focus on bringing more attention to my thoughts and feelings. As a result, I’m gradually getting better at being in the here and now which lowers my anxiety levels. Here’s a great online mindfulness course and it’s free! I found it helpful.

I write. Writing this blog post has already helped with my travel-related anxiety. Writing gives me the opportunity to put my worries on the page, recognize that most of what’s spinning around in my mind is ridiculous, or solvable, and allows me to differentiate between truth and fiction. My emotions de-charge, I’m able to see more clearly, and I can push back against the fear-talking in my brain. You don’t need a blog to do this. Grab a pen, a piece of paper, and write your angst. It really helps.

I talk it out. In the past, this may have meant some therapy. Most of the time, though, I simply share my fears with someone. In psychology they call talking “externalizing.” Just verbalizing what’s spinning around in my head calms my mind, and when I’m thinking nonsense, another person can usually give me a more common sense perspective.

(I want to point out, though, that for serious cases of catastrophizing, cognitive behavioural therapy is recommended because it helps you recognize and take charge of negative thinking.)

I practice self-care. My thinking gets more catastrophic if I’m tired or stressed. So I aim to get enough rest as well as exercise and meditate. I’m also practicing EFT (thanks, Carol Richard), and I try to eat well most of the time. All of this goes a long way in calming frantic thoughts.

Over time, I’ve gotten better at managing my catastrophic thinking. In fact, I’ve become successful at stopping many anxiety attacks in their tracks before they blow up into full-fledged panic attacks. This is a huge win for me.

When catastrophic thinking takes hold of you, when your minds starts to run away with itself, take a step back and breathe. Try some of the strategies I suggest. You have the power to reverse this way of thinking, and therein lies your path to well-being.