Debbie Joffe Ellis

Tried and True

The Catastrophizing Cure

Coping with confusion, fake news, hoaxes, the pandemic, and everyday hassles.

Posted Aug 28, 2020

There is immense misery going around right now—a pandemic of catastrophizing, awfulizing, anxiety, depression, rage, a need for certainty, and hopelessness.

The good news is—there is a cure for each of these unhealthy conditions.

And it’s in our hands. Well, actually, it’s in our minds. No vaccines are necessary to facilitate the power of this cure. No foolproof evidence is needed to back up one claim or another that we think will bring absolute certainty to beget peace of mind. (And please consider that the idea that ‘absolute certainty’ exists may rob us of time and energy through seeking that elusive and probably non-existent state).

Happenings during these recent times, that include serious concerns about COVID-19, chaotic political activity, doubt being thrown on the veracity and accuracy of various media channels, newspapers and their sources, and ongoing reporting and/or witnessing of injustices and transgressions (some alleged, and some proven beyond doubt) have contributed to elevated stress levels, and to increasing numbers of people seeking help.

We, and only we, have the power to create our emotional destinies, no matter what the outside circumstances may be. We do so by determined and ongoing effort to think rationally about each and all challenging circumstances, by vigilantly and swiftly identifying any irrational beliefs that we are holding, by vigorously disputing them, and finally by creating healthy rational new beliefs that replace the irrational ones.

When we think in irrational ways about any circumstance or situation we create unhealthy and often debilitating emotions that include anxiety, panic, extreme fear, depression, despondency, rage, embarrassment, shame, guilt, hurt, and jealousy. When we think in rational ways we undisturb ourselves and create healthy emotions such as concern, sadness, grief, healthy anger (largely based on the humanistic support for justice, respect and civil rights for all), regret, disappointment, compassion, and gratitude. The pioneering cognitive approach of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is, in my experience, the most effective, empowering, and holistic tool for coping with current, and other, life challenges.

Three of the essential aspects of REBT, those of

  • Identifying Irrational beliefs (IB’s), disputing and replacing them
  • non-catastrophizing
  • practicing unconditional acceptance of self, of others, and of life, can allow us to prevent unhealthy reactivity, to keep things in a healthy perspective, and to remain calm during turbulent times.

In-so-doing we may act as healthy models for others who may be succumbing to distress, grief, and/or general and sweeping attitudes and emotions of overwhelm, anxiety, anger, and angst.

When we think in irrational ways we harbor dogmatic demands: shoulds, musts, oughts; we catastrophize and awfulize; we overgeneralize; we think in absolutistic ways; we have low frustration tolerance; and tend to damn ourselves, others and life itself when things don’t go the way we think they “should”.

Three Core Irrational Beliefs that many people hold, and from which countless others emerge, are:

  1. I must do well and be approved and loved by others
  2. You must always treat me well and act the way I think you should
  3. Life (the world) should be fair and just

Conversely, when we think in rational ways we have preferences rather than demands; we hold a healthy perspective and at times apply humor to help us do so; we experience gratitude and focus daily on what is positive and good in our lives; we don’t overgeneralize or think in absolutistic ways; we have high frustration tolerance, reminding ourselves that we can stand what we don’t like; we care about the well-being of others and the environment (embracing social interest); and we make effort to experience and express Unconditional Self Acceptance, Unconditional Other Acceptance, and Unconditional Life Acceptance.      

When we identify any irrational beliefs we can then dispute them in three ways

  1. Realistically: Asking “Where is it written? Where is the evidence?”
  2. Logically: Asking “Does it follow?”
  3. Pragmatically: Asking “Where is it getting me to maintain this irrational belief? Is it helping or hurting me?”

Some Irrational Beliefs that Contribute to Anxiety, Distress, Upset, Rage, and Confusion during current and other challenging times include:

  • I must always know the truth and true facts, it’s terrible if I don’t
  • I must know what to believe all the time
  • I can’t stand it when people lie for personal gain, political motives, and unethical reasons—they should never behave in such ways
  • I must have certainty and know when this pandemic will end; when there will be a safe vaccine; when I can comfortably socialize again
  • There’s never been a time like this and it may never end
  • I don’t know who I am anymore
  • What is happening is utterly terrifying and terrible for me

To create sanity and remain sane during such a time of uncertainty and conflicting information being bandied around, it is vital that we be willing to use our minds to be weapons of mass destruction against:

  • Unscientific claims
  • Beliefs that have no evidence supporting their credibility
  • Predicting the worst-case scenario
  • Blowing things out of perspective
  • Pessimism
  • Catastrophizing and awfulizing
  • Any need for certainty

It is important for us to be willing to recognize if and when we are experiencing any of the unhealthy emotions—rage, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, etc., and then make effort to transform them into healthy emotions as previously described.

Instead of doing any self-defeating thinking, it is profoundly beneficial to:

  1. Trust science and our abilities to be discerning; whilst at the same time to work towards accepting both our fallibility and changes in what scientific research may assert over time.
  2. Be willing to practice flexibility in our thinking and attitudes
  3. Develop self-sufficiency in our thinking and behaviors
  4. Choose to not succumb to herd mentality and debilitating emotions
  5. Choose with great determination to think rationally—and not blindly accept any dubious assertions adopted by any group or mass of people who do not appear to have thought things through nor looked for credible evidence supporting their beliefs.
  6. Choose Realistic Optimism, helped by recalling other dire times in human history when facts were not clear and yet, despite that, a good number of people survived and thrived.
  7. Focus primarily on the here and now—change what we can (our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) and accept what we can’t.
  8. Remember daily what we can be grateful for, and choose throughout the day to focus on what still is good—despite and including current challenges and confusion.
  9. Remember, with vigor, that we can stand what we don’t like, we just don’t like it.
 Image by Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.
Source: Source: Image by Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.

Whatever the current status – it too will pass. Let’s remember that the current situation is not responsible for our catastrophizing, awfulizing, and making ourselves sick with dread, rage, anxiety, and confusion.

We, and only we, are responsible for creating our own emotional destinies. Let’s embrace and maintain our freedom and ability to do so by choosing to adopt healthy rational thinking – even if countless other people don’t appear to be doing so. It's our choice.