Friday, September 24, 2010

Messed Up Thinking #4: Catastrophizing

Confession: Of all "Messed Up Thinking" forms, this is the one I have been most guilty of in my life.

Have you ever stayed up all night worrying because you thought something was going to turn out horribly, only to have it be okay? Have you ever been consumed with anxiety about a future event over which you have no effect? If so, you may be experiencing "Catastrophization," ie, the assumption that things are going to work out as a "catastrophe" in the future.  Or, believing that that meeting, that party, that date, that meal, that 401K account, that vacation, or anything else is going to end up very badly.

Keep in mind, we live in a culture that produces and maintains catastrophic thinking.  The entire basis  of consumerism is about scaring into you thinking you need to purchase something you don't truly need.  Corporations pay billions of dollars a year to try to make you believe you should lose weight, reduce wrinkles, have the best car, clean kitchen counters, and follow hundreds of other contrived dictates.  It is implied that the consequences of not following these "shoulds," and not spending your hard earned money, is that you will be left alone and unloved.

At the same time, newspapers and televisions present "news" items that are designed to instill fear in you, so you will continue to buy their papers, watch their shows, and buy the products that are advertised.  As mentioned in an earlier posting, the media has a vested interest in making you castrophize that horrible things could happen to you at any moment.  Given these insidious messages, it makes complete sense that any one of us are walking around in a state of unease, discomfort, or even panic!

There is an easier way to get through life.  Recognize that catastrophizing about a situation does nothing to make that situation less likely to happen.  In fact, over-worrying can make you less likely to think clear enough to take appropriate action to avoid a disaster of some sort.  When your brain is flooded with a flurry of anxious thoughts, it impacts your ability to problem solve effectively.

So what's the alternative? Change your thinking.  Recognize that most true catastrophes in life, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, car accidents, plane crashes, are statistically rare, and completely out of your control.  Don't underestimate your ability to handle a disaster.  If you made it far enough to read this blog post, then you clearly have survivor skills you can draw upon to manage a crisis.

Also be aware that anytime you are worrying about a future event you are practicing the power of faith.  Most people refer to "faith" as something spiritual and peaceful.  But faith is simply believing in something you can't see.  You can utilize the power of your faith to believe that life is going to be okay, that you can handle adversity, that someone or something is watching out for us, and experience the peace that comes from that.  Or, you can utilize the power of your faith to believe that something horrible is around the next corner and everything is going to be awful in your life.  That choice is up to you.

There are numerous ways to reduce catastrophizing.  Therapy, meditation, exercise, education, spiritual practices, all can help you to reduce worrying, and enjoy living. My number one suggestion for living with minimal anxiety is getting rid of the "shoulds" that cause stress and fear in daily life.  What is working for you?

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City at Mental Health Counseling & Marriage And Family Therapy Of New York. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."

1 comment:

-C said...

This is the main problem my own therapist treated me for. I'm still struggling with it. I was raised by two dysfunctional parents who were masters at catastrophizing everything.