Those are some powerful words that I work to teach many of my clients. They’re powerful because they can take you out of the spin of anxiety and depression and help you to step back and see how the worst thoughts you have are not necessarily the only or most likely thoughts to be true about a given situation.
Say them out loud when you start worrying. See how it feels in your body. Does your chest loosen? Does your heart beat slow? It can seem magical how saying two words OUT LOUD can change your perspective and emotional response so dramatically.
Not everyone catastrophizes all the time. Some people are more prone than others. In cognitive behavioral therapy it is a form of distorted thinking that therapists work to highlight for their clients and encourage clients to become more mindful of when they are doing it.
The human brain wants things to make sense. It wants facts to fit a narrative. These narratives, over time, become like grooves on a record – the needle sinks deeper into them and sometimes even becomes stuck and cannot move on to other verses of the song. AND, when bumped, the needle jumps back into that familiar deep rut. For some people, the assumption of the worst set of facts, or that a situation will have the worst possible outcome – a catastrophe, is that groove. This groove is formed and exacerbated over time and based on experiences – so it’s not completely irrational that it exists. But the existence of the groove does NOT confirm that all situations are going to necessarily end up fitting in with that narrative.
Sometimes, the narrative is so strong, we act in ways to make it true. A self fulfilling prophecy is one that we make true on the basis of simply knowing about it. Confirmation bias, by the same token, is the tendency of researchers to view facts in ways that confirm their theories and to discard facts that would not fit with their hypothesis. People do this all the time – discard facts that might make them feel better or that might make the catastrophe seem less likely. Or act in ways that make the catastrophe more likely than if they hadn’t done anything at all.
Everyone has had the friend (or been the friend) who ended a relationship because they felt that the other person was going to break up with them. In their mind, the catastrophe was ending the relationship so….they end the relationship.
Disney fandom seems to provide so many opportunities to witness catastrophizing. When Disney announces they are changing a ride, the immediate outcry is that the park will never be the same, the ride will never be good again, it is a tragedy. But is it? I’ve written before about why I don’t think it is (see: How I learned to stop worrying and love Tiana’s Splash Mountain). People assume the worst because at least the worst is known. It’s much easier for people to come up with the scenario that scares them the most than it is to come up with what would satisfy them or make them happy.
Another example, my worries about my kids and homeschooling. I think we all tend to assume it’s going to be terrible (and I’m not looking forward to it or getting into the implications for opening schools) and difficult and so bad. But here’s a thing I noticed when we stayed home in the spring – my daughter (who is in Middle School, talk about a catastrophe) was in a better mood when she didn’t have the ups and downs of of middle school drama in her face every day. This was an unexpected benefit to the shut down. She didn’t have seventh grade friend drama to distract from actually doing her school work. Now, I know that seventh grade friend drama is an important way of learning how to cope with the herd and how to interact with peers and how to manage relationships so I’m glad that she had most of the school year to engage in it. BUT, I also wasn’t horribly disappointed for her to have a break from it.
SO, just try saying “I’m catastrophizing” out loud the next time you feel yourself getting anxious and worked up about something. See if it helps.