BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2019 (revised December 2020)
Catastrophizing creates disasters out of the mundane happenings. When we habitually engage in catastrophizing, the constant threat interferes with the joys of living.
“I knew it. This is going to ruin everything.” The blaring echo of badness bounce through our brains, disrupting the moment with worst possible explanations. Catastrophizing is a malady of the conscious mind. We worry and worry a lot. Most exaggerated predictions fall flat, and reality plays out in a kinder fashion. Our meandering minds continue; once a problem is solved, we jump to another uncertainty to fret over. Stuck in this cycle of impending doom, we destroy the sanctity of the moment with the junk of the mind, stirring emotions, and squandering potential joys.
The late psychologist Albert Ellis popularized the word “catastrophizing,” using it in his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). REBT confronts beliefs that generates destructive feelings. Catastrophizing is an internal narrative, based on errant beliefs, that transforms current events into terrible tragedies. We evaluate environmental triggers from the distorted lens of worst-case scenarios. Naturally, this thinking disrupts our lives, creating a constant threat as we live in the shadow of an agonizing future.
Life is difficult enough without the continual shocks from imagined threats. Our erroneous predictions evoke great tension, drawing from limited resources, leaving depleted reserves to respond to the actual disappointments and obstacles.
"Naturally, this thinking disrupts our lives, creating a constant threat as we live in the shadow of an agonizing future."
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” Michel de Montaigne
David Richo in his book Five Things We Cannot Change wrote, “neurotic fear is the mortal foe of our lively energy” (2006). Entertaining a constant fear of impending disaster paralyzes action. Our world transforms from an opportunistic universe of beauty to a dreary dungeon of torture, where we anxiously wait for the inevitable punishment.
A worrying mind expresses distrust of time; waiting becomes the playground for malicious thoughts; every delay a deceit, every hope a danger, every potential friend a manipulator (Erickson, 1994, Location 2153). The habitual catastrophizer poisons dreams with the toxins of imagined failure.
Worrying has roots in evolutionary survival. The cost of missing a threat is costly. We survive overlooking an opportunity, often learning from the misplay to seize the next fortune that passes by; we can only be eaten once. We have a built-in “negative bias.” Our brain overrides positive happy thoughts when any threat to our livelihood, relationships or identity is present.
Catastrophizing is negative-bias on steroids. Ordinary events become terrorizing dangers that override any pleasantries. A headache broadcasts an incurable disease, and the unanswered text signals rejection. The skilled worrier scans incessantly for critical information, seeking clues that point to an impending disaster; the catastrophizing worrier catches hold of any possibility of badness, gives it life with descriptive images, and then agonizes over this self-imposed meaning.
The ghastly cycle of thoughts and feelings gains energy as it rolls unimpeded, jumping from feelings to thoughts, increasing in magnitude with more feelings and more dreadful thoughts. The merry-go-around of horror spins out of control, speeding towards the crescendo of the cataclysmic future.
Our bodies naturally respond to triggers in the environment. Living beings sense changing patterns and respond and adapt. Part of this biological process is feelings. External events begin biological changes in the body. Our heart rates speed and slow, blood pressure rises and lowers, and muscles tighten and relax. These physical adaptations perform automatically, independent of thought and purposeful choice. But when the bodily change is significant, the feelings break through into consciousness and the mind joins the party, bringing images from the past to mingle with the feelings of the present.
The addition of rationality to feeling reactions provides an opportunity for a reasoned response, full of creativity and wisdom. We live in a very complex world. Environmental events are often harmless, infused with possibilities—both good and bad. We must operate in the unknown grayness, processing the partial information of uncertainty, while delaying immediate action. This is where imaginations take hold. Veering off the healthy course and imbibing in magnified negative-bias. The first onslaught of thoughts is typically benign, composed of normal consideration of potential dangers. The negative thoughts, however, prime the mind for more negative thoughts, stirring deeper physical affects and creating distress—over imagined futures. We have taken the scraps of reality, forced them into a frightening story of disaster; now engaged in the anxiety cycle, we must grab-on for another wild ride over the bumps and dips leading to the horrifying future imagined in the mind.
Catastrophizing does more than aggravate the present with the non-sense; our thoughts also corrupt future realities. We invite what we visualize. Our catastrophizing may become a self-fulfilling prophesy. All thoughts, both positive and negative, pass through our minds. The thoughts we feed become strong, potentially playing out in reality. We unintentionally respond with action geared toward creating the predicted future—the one we fear. We destroy relationships, miss promotions, and skip opportunities. Nathaniel Branden, the self-esteem guru, explains, “The tragedy of many people’s lives is that, given a choice between being ‘right’ and having an opportunity to be happy, they invariably choose being ‘right.’ That is the one ultimate satisfaction they allow themselves.” (1995, p.10).
When feeling systems signal uncertainty, we examine potential clues in the environment, latch onto the hints with the direst implications, and waddle in the terribleness; sometimes blaming others and the world, other times berating ourselves.
Anxiety a Given
Anxiety is a given; a motivational force embedded in biological organisms. We smoothly cruise on automatic pilot, enjoying a homeostatic balance until something goes wrong. Disruption shakes us from this non-attentive drift, motivating a search for a solution to regain balance. Incidents of emotion occur when predictions and expectations require adjustment; the environment changes and demands that we adapt. Our scream, “stop, think, act!”
Expectations, however, are not the enemy. They give purpose to actions. We expect to get paid on Friday, so we work five days without immediate compensation; we expect our car to start, so we plan thirty-minutes for the commute; we expect our spouse to be supportive, so we reveal our weaknesses. Standards of expectation are essential to action. When deviations occur, we can make correcting adjustments (adaptions). Standards of expectations should have ties to reality. Unrealistic expectations lead to an indefensible ending. We can’t accurately predict futures with faulty interpretations; unrealistic expectations and failed predictions, create internal chaos—a broken rudder to steer our ship. A pattern of expectation errors typically begins in childhoods where chaotic environments made accurate predictions impossible. These poor children never develop this necessary skill for healthy living.
Reality is a calamity to the faulty thinker. They sooth chaotic happenings by inviting the futures most fearfully detested, forcing abhorred ruminations into reality. This unintentional practice has some benefits. We find security in correct predictions even when the predictions are disconcerting, lessening the impact of uncertainty and helplessness. But we must recognize this loathsome practice—a miserable reality is never worth the scanty security it provides.
Our challenge is to recognize the dysfunction through mindful examination, asking, “does my response (to anxiety) motivate correcting action or create more misery?” With mindfulness, we can evaluate our responses to feeling. If mindfulness is foreign and feelings have gone unnoticed, you may need assistance from a skilled professional or compassionate friend. When perceptions have been structured around chaos, order is first incomprehensible—a brighter diagnosis is impossible. We struggle to visualize anything vastly different from our experience.
Awareness is the first step to change. We must slow down to see the incidents of emotion together with our habit of catastrophizing. Seeing this fearsome cycle from a different angle gives a deeper perspective. We can gain clarity, seeing our propensity to exaggerate the bad. With practice, we can catch worries early in the cycle, opening an opportunity to intervene, inserting balanced information into the predictions that dilute the toxic thoughts.
The goal isn’t to forcefully extinguish the worries. Extinction isn’t always possible or even advisable. We must contend with the stubbornness of the human mind. Adaptations derived from childhood tend to stick. Biological underpinnings intertwine with childhood experience creating habits that resist lasting change. Often our approach to these pathologies should be to “deal with it,” rather than fix it. (Seligman, 2012, p.52)
We all occasionally reach our threshold, where worries overwhelm our sensitive systems. We must work through these challenges, often pulling back and regaining balance. These are critical moments, new habits of adapting take hold. Instead of facing challenges, we often become accustomed to avoiding all difficulties, surviving through neglect of personal development. Certainly, we must measure experience and eliminate unnecessary stress through wise action. However, a life structured around avoidance creates difficult futures, where disasters are invited. We should face the anxiety of building a brick house rather than fear the strong winds later when seeking refuge in a crumbling house of straw.
We must face and work through anxiety. Albert Ellis taught therapists to induce clients “to keep repeating, in vivo, acts that they irrationally fear” in order for them to give up their self-defeating catastrophizing. (2002, p. 158)
Rollo May in his historic work on anxiety wrote:
The capacity to bear anxiety is important for the individual's self-realization and for his conquest of his environment. Every person experiences continual shocks and threats to his existence; indeed, self-actualization occurs only at the price of moving ahead despite such shocks. This points to the constructive use of anxiety. (2015, p.54)
Successfully facing anxiety isn’t sufficient. The anxiety cycle tends to keep turning, reliving history. Trajectories are powerful. The expert catastrophizer is adept at this game of misery. They creatively build complex stories from scanty evidence. Like other skills, we also improve at catastrophizing with repeated practice. Solutions that combat catastrophizing must also be practiced before it can become an effective cure.
To interrupt the automatic churning of bad thoughts, we must inject new information into the stubborn cycle, recalling previous encounters where the catastrophizing failed to match the unfolding of reality. We can also search for alternate explanations of the facts that are less dire, adding some positives to our ruminations. Sometimes, we need to escape altogether, finding hobbies and entertainment that demand enough attention that the mind can’t dwell on something else. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the state of mind experienced when in engaged in activities demanding complete attention as a state of flow (2008).
We will not resolve the worry; but purposeful work will help us deal with the demon. Time must roll forward before the ending is revealed. We can befriend time, less afraid of uncertainties; instead of constantly ruminating over disappointment, occasionally, with practice, we may dabble in the joys of hope and possibility.
By adding small respites from anxiety, we bolster strength, recruiting energy to move forward. Michael Tompkins, an assistant clinical professor of Psychology at UC Berkley, wrote “Deep and lasting change—the kind that transforms your life—begins with stepping toward, rather than away from, discomfort.” (2013). This is what we want, not to shrivel before experience but blossom through active engagement in life.
As we put anxiety into clearer perspective, escaping the immediate influence of strong emotion, we see the anxiety cycle with its beginning, middle and end. Our small injections of thoughts into the old cycle of worry weakens the catastrophizing and slows the unhealthy trajectories. With patience, we build a repertoire of successful encounters with anxiety, creating moments that we can recall during future intrusions of worry. Eventually, the catastrophizing softens. We may notice its continued existence but still move forward towards the life we desire.
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Branden, N. (1995). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. Bantam; Reprint edition
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Ellis, A. (2007). Overcoming Resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Integrated Approach, Second Edition (Springer Series on Behavior Therapy and Behavioral Medicine). Springer Publishing Company; 2 edition.
Erickson, E. (1994). Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. Edition.
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Richo, D. (2006). The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them. Shambhala; Reprint edition
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Tompkins, M. A. (2013). Anxiety and Avoidance: A Universal Treatment for Anxiety, Panic, and Fear. New Harbinger Publications; Workbook edition.