Science and Sensibility

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Anxiety and Exaggerations

Get relief from amplifying possibilities into catastrophes

Worry, anxiety, stress, and panic are often the emotional expressions of catastrophic thinking. Technically, catastrophizing is an exaggerating, irrational, style of thought where you painfully blow real or imagined disasters out of proportion. Fortunately, catastrophic thinking is correctable. I’ll emphasize how to do this.

What are the signs of catastrophizing? You unintentionally make a bad situation worse, or create a crisis out of little to nothing.  You may chain together worsening possibilities as you sink into a descending cycle of despair. When catastrophic thinking fuses with raw-nerve tension, you’ll have trouble concentrating. You’ll have trouble figuring out what to do. When ongoing, catastrophizing can be a prelude to depression. Combatting this thinking helps prevent anxiety-linked depressions.

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What does catastrophic thinking feel like? You receive a registered letter from the legal offices of Wiggins and Trust. Before you open it, you assume you are going to be the subject of a ruinous lawsuit and then you dwell on the horrors of the suit. You feel helpless, vulnerable, and overwhelmed. Feeling too tense to open and read the letter, you put it aside. After days of gut-wrenching dread, you can’t take the strain any longer. You open the envelope. You discover that a great aunt willed you her painting of the Grand Canyon.

Are you willing to make necessary changes to combat and neutralize catastrophizing in order to gain the advantage of greater command over yourself and over the controllable events that take place around you? If so, here are sample cognitive, emotive, and behavioral remedies.

First Things First

Let’s get rid of needless blame first. Let's suppose you blame yourself or others for your emotional turmoil.  Paradoxically, by accepting your catastrophizing as an automatic and unpleasant thinking habit, you can quickly shed blame  about this whole sorry process.  Compared to the blame alternative, tolerance for tension can feel comparatively good.

It’s not your fault that you catastrophize. Like everyone else, you’re wired to catastrophize; otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to learn to do this and then to involuntarily tyrannize yourself in this way.  Nevertheless, if you want relief from this form of manufactured misery, it is your responsibility to change course.

Don’t Trip on the Molehills

When apprehension escalates to anxiety, go back to what you were telling yourself when you first started to catastrophize. Map the pattern.  You may find a molehill that you made into a mountain. If so, use a flip technique where you turn panicked thinking into an active concern about doing and getting better. Here are four steps in this process:  

1. As best you can, suspend judgment about both yourself and the real or presumed catastrophic event.

2. Accept that you, others, and the world are as they are, and no amount of complaining will change that. Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself to change your catastrophizing pattern.

3.  Guide yourself, or seek expert help, about how to contain catastrophizing and advance your enlightened interests.

4. Engage in productive activities that can null your failure expectations.

Actively follow these four steps, and you are likely to experience the sort of resilience that springs from your concern to do better. Because you'll have clearer options, you are less likely to view yourself as vulnerable and helpless. You’ll make better decisions.

Combat Catastrophizing

We mostly think of catastrophizing as magnifying and dwelling on present problems and anticipating future disasters. However, you can anchor this thinking to a past, present, and future timeline.

1. You anguish over mistakes you made as if these selective recollections stamp the word failure on your forehead.  As you extend this dread, you may panic over the possibility of others discovering, criticizing, and condemning you for past faults. However, you are mainly your own worst pain in the rump on this one. You're better off focusing your attention on what you can do than what you might have done differently..

2. You look down and see that you are wearing different colored socks. You think that others think that you belong to the poor taste club. You make this event into the worst thing that can happen to you. You think that this error will haunt you forever. You feel mortified, fearful, and vulnerable. (Intentionally wearing off-color socks can help desensitize you to this type error.)

3. You anguish over the possibility of suffering from brain cancer. You feel fatigued. You think this is proof you have cancer. You get up fast from your chair and feel dizzy. You think this is proof you have cancer. You break into tears at the thought that because of this illness you’ll no longer be around to celebrate holidays and special occasions with your family and friends.

Let’s grant that you have made mistakes in the past, that the mismatched socks are a present-moment mistake, and that you have a tendency to jump to conclusions about future possibilities. So what!

The so what intervention helps put catastrophizing into a different perspective.  However, you still haven’t put the catastrophizing issue to rest. There is more work to do, including expanding on your so what acceptance thinking. (Instead of exaggerating, you expand you coping capabilities.)

Expand your coping capabilities with a stop and reflect difference technique. For example, distinguish between concerns, calamities, and catastrophizing. Your house catches fire. That's a calamity. When your reaction is one of concern, you care about what happened—perhaps deeply so.  You accept—not like—the situation as it is.  On the other hand, catastrophize and you figuratively throw gasoline on the flames. Extinguish these fires by imagining yourself infusing your actions with reasoned choices that propel productive purposes. Take the actions that you imagined.

Here are four examples of actions of acceptance to help yourself break a catastrophic thinking habit:

1. Acknowledge your tendency to create catastrophic fictions, and refuse to blame yourself for that.

2. Listen to your narrative. What is the story that you are telling yourself that feels so catastrophic?  What are the facts and fictions in the story? Are you making a magical and illogical leap from what is possible to what is probable? For example, if you believe that you have an undiagnosed cancer, is this a fiction or a fact? How do you know?

3. Because you believe something catastrophic can happen, doesn’t mean that it will happen. The Mayan Calendar has the world ending on December 21, 2012.  Many panic over this possibility. Were the ancient Mayans infallible prophets?

4. The catastrophizing reward system is where you experience a subliminal relief from distress that reinforces the stress that it relieves. When an expected catastrophic event doesn’t happen, or is not as bad as you thought, the relief you feel can reward your negative premonitions, making them more likely to come back. (A reward, such as relief or money, is a reinforcer  only if it increases the frequency of the actions that it follows.) Make sure you reinforce your productive and not your dysfunctional reactions. Your awareness of  rewards for catastrophizing can light a direction for snuffing out specious reinforcers.

For more on combatting catastrophic thinking, and other anxiety amplifying thoughts, click on: The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety

© Dr. Bill Knaus

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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