Catastrophizing: How To Worry About Nothing

Let’s talk about catastrophe. As I sit here in my bathrobe, whiling away a morning off before a meeting, I’ve already had at least 2 moments of utter shocking horror.

One: I realized that I committed to going somewhere at a time when I already have to be somewhere else. That is simply too many places for any given interval. Needless to say, I panicked, despaired, considered the possible implications for my job and livelihood, and then shoved it away to deal with later. I’ll need to fix it when I get to work later, but that doesn’t stop it from popping up over and over again in the interim, like a ghost haunting my happiness. Thanks, I had been feeling good for a few minutes, I needed a fresh wash of adrenaline.

Two: I briefly considered working on my research project for my psych MA. At this point, it is my boogieman, the half-glimpsed horror seen just as you jolt awake in a cold sweat. It is my hemorrhoid.

These are, of course, little things. I’ll fix the schedule conflict when I get to work, though it might mean annoying my boss. Sucks, but not terrible. As for the research project, I just need to start piling hours on it until its dread diminishes. Doable, and the best time to start is today. Little tiny problems!

Then why on earth is my heart rate still up? Why won’t my brain let me just rest and enjoy my morning?

Well, because I have anxiety issues, but also because I’ve trained myself to overreact to little problems. This is called catastrophizing.

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion where we make mountains out of molehills.

It’s drama. It’s losing perspective in a way that punishes you and everyone around you.

A friend not calling you back when she said she would isn’t just shitty, it’s the end of the world. Your boss saying “let’s talk later” is the end of your career, your financial security, and your family. Your ankles swelling isn’t just a result of standing all day, it’s congestive heart failure (thanks Dr. Google!).

Do you see the problem here? We’re always wrong about this. Like, 99% of the time. Your friend calls you the next day and apologizes (or doesn’t, who gives a shit?). Your boss wanted to talk about a new calendaring program. Your ankles were actually full of delicious candy.

Type IV diabetes
Source: rochelle hartman on flickr, CC BY 2.0

So why do we do it? Do we like being miserable? Are we so insufferably drama-addicted that everything needs to be a disaster? Not really, and kind of.

It’s not so much the “why,” it’s the “how.” When you consider behavior, you need to consider what’s reinforcing you. What’s rewarding this behavior in such a way that the frequency or intensity increases?

This can be different from person to person, but lots of things reinforce catastrophizing.

  • It’s a good excuse to socialize as you and a co-dependent partner bemoan your respective fates.
  • It’s a good excuse to get indignant and self-righteous, which feels pretty damn good after a full day of impotence.
  • It might feed into your personal life narrative, where people are out to get you and you can’t rely on anyone but yourself.
  • This one’s a big one: That wash of relief when you end up being wrong? That can actually reinforce your brain’s previous bad behavior.

How messed up is that last one? You brace yourself for disaster, suffering incalculably, and you get addicted to being wrong

I don’t have any answers for you this time. Just try to become aware of this phenomenon, because awareness can be a crack. More later. Oh yeah, it’s now the evening, and the fix to my time overlap was easy. Who could have ever predicted?

2 thoughts on “Catastrophizing: How To Worry About Nothing

Comments? Stories? Write something!