The Art of Catastrophizing

image the world coming to an endThis post is about living down to the worst you of your worst nightmare. It didn’t start out that way, but once Debbie Disaster invaded my mind, well, let’s just say it was all my little fatalistic fingers could do to keep up with the crap…

Catastrophizing is a common culprit in the war of negative thinking.

Speaking of the world coming to an end, a friend once accused me of making the word up.

“’Catastrophize?’ Is that one your Linda psychobabble words like ‘withholding?’” he chided.

“OMG—it’s people like you who give the psychological profession a bad rap. I did not invent that one…I swear, if I had to spend my time around the likes of you all day, I’d be talking myself off the ledge every other second. Shit, I need a cocktail. I’m going to drink myself into oblivion and forget you accused me of such professional malfeasance,” I cried.

Our worldview is largely shaped by the adult influences in our lives. One of the most important lessons we teach children is that the world is generally a safe place, and that most people possess good-will.

Choosing everyday language wisely, including avoidance of platitudes of doom, and black and white words such as ‘never,’ ‘always,’ ‘should’ve,’ and ‘would’ve,’ are vital for creating calm and emotionally healthy children.

Or not.

Rather than write a nice, tight post with lots of quotes and research by respectable publications, I’ll illustrate the perils of catastrophizing using my exemplary parenting skills, in addition to the actions of my future meal ticket son, and our ungrateful dog, Ca$h.

The Catastrophizer at home:

So last week, as me and the luckiest 9 y/o in the world are getting ready for work and school, the ½-ass Siberian husky decides to dash out the front door. If you’ve spent any time around huskies, you know this is one of the pitfalls of ownership.

Realizing the kid is going to go ballistic, I responsibly remember the parenting tenet of modeling grace and calm in the face of calamity.

Me: “That’s right, you goddamned dog,” I yell as Ca$h happily races down the street, “you better run your sorry ass all the way to Raymond Avenue and California Boulevard. And when you reach the Pasadena Humane Society, you nicely heel and ask them to lock you up in a 4 X 4 pen in-between the nine newborn Pitbulls, and the three-legged Chihuahua-mix. That’s right, you tell ‘em just how wretched your life is, buster.”

Son: “Moooommmmm!”. Ca$h ran away again! What are we gonna do?”

Me: “We’re gonna use reverse psychology, and prey on his separation anxiety is exactly what we’re gonna do.”

Son: “What?!”

Me: “Don’t worry. He’ll come back. The key is not to make this into a game where he thinks we’re chasing him.”

Son: “But he’s not so smart. What if he runs into the street again? This is all your fault because you’re always calling him ‘the worst dog in the world.’”

Me: “You got me there, Captain Catastrophy. Look, it’s a known fact that he’s not the smartest Husky on the Idiot Iditarod, but he’s not the dumbest, either, okay? If he runs into oncoming traffic, that should teach him a lesson, right? Now go grab your hoodie before you catch your death of a cold.”

Son: “Oh my God. This is going to be the worst day ever.”

Me: “Don’t use God’s name in vain. And don’t roll your eyes at me. If you keep doing that, your eyeballs are going to get stuck in the back of your head and you’ll never get married. You’ll be the loser up the street living with 87 stray cats who never left home. C’mon. We’re going to be late for school. Chop, chop, mama’s boy.”

Son: “I think we should just give Cash away. He is the worst dog in the world.”

Me: “Man up, Chicken Little. The sky is not about to fall just yet… look out the window to see who’s passively-aggressively sitting across the street staring at us. What’s the thing I always tell you?”

Son: “Argh. Which one? There’s so many.”

Me: “The world thing.”

Son: “The world….(barely audible mumble) is basically…(deep sigh) a safe place.”

Me: “That’s right. Now get your backpack, and wait in the car. I don’t need Principal Johnson sending the godforsaken Truancy Police to our house. Our neighbors are nosy enough as is.”

The Professional Catastrophizer:

You may recognize this type if you’re a psychotherapist, a life or business coach, or someone’s friend or family member…

~The successful surgeon on the verge of a panic attack:

“I just know I’m going to hurt someone. All it takes is one small slip of the scalpel, and my career is over.”

No matter how logic-tight your argument about his decorated professional career, including an unblemished record with the American Medical Association, he is not buying the calm.

After suggesting he focus on the mindfulness-based practices of remaining in the here-and-now, in addition to deep breathing exercises, and thought stopping, you sigh in exasperation:

“Well. I suppose if by ‘one small slip of the scalpel’ you mean plunging your curved instrument into the patient’s heart, then I guess you have a good argument, Dr. Zhivago.”

Or,

~The zealous attorney fresh out of law school, frozen with fear every time she has a phone consult with opposing counsel’s experienced and grizzled attorneys.

Employing life experience and common sense, you compliment her drive, her gumption, and her past successes with beating adversity. You enthusiastically remind her of her formidable psychological weaponry against the snide and derisive mental attacks. Her reaction: nonplussed and dead set on the calamity that is sure to happen.

“Hmmm. Well, I think you’re right. You probably will comport yourself in a manner consistent with Charlie Sheen’s illegitimate sister. Yep. I think the Starbuck’s on Lake Avenue is hiring baristas.”

*Sigh*

Oh, and the Husky…

“Mom, look! The neighbor has Ca$h!”

Bob wearily approaches holding his decrepit, barely alive canine in his left hand. In his right, the bubble-gum tongued, panting Husky pup.

“Wow. It seems like this is getting to be a habit,” says Bob with a tinge of understandable exasperation.

Even his dog stares me down with his one good eye as if I’m the Crack Mom of dog owners.

“Oh, thank you so much. I’m sorry this happened again. Cesar Milan was supposed to be here at 7:45 a.m. He must be running late. Good God, I hope nothing happened…”

***

Your voice matters!

What helps you avoid Chicken Little syndrome?

Any advice for Debbie Disaster and Apocalypse Alan?

Please leave comments in the box below.

Have a wonderfully calm week:),

Linda

{Photo: itspaulkelly via Flickr}

About Linda Esposito

Hi there! I'm an Anxiety Saboteur and the creator of the soon-to-be retired TalkTherapyBiz.com. If you want to join me on Wired for Happy click this link to subscribe for details.

23 Responses to "The Art of Catastrophizing"

  1. Alison Golden - The Secret Life of a Warrior WomanNo Gravatar says:

    This made me laugh. I can be a catastrophizer – the world is going to hell in a handcart kind of way – and I’ve learned the answer is to be alone. Somehow all the stimulation overwhelms me and the anxiety starts. If I take a nap all the world becomes right again. Funny.

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Alison–

      Yes. Solitude is such a salve when one feels over-stimulated and overwhelmed. I loved your comment last week (I think it was?) about saying “no” to just about everything outside of family…If you consider that we all have a finite amount of emotional energy each day, well, that statement just makes sense.

      I nap everyday, and I think of this routine as helping those around me as much as it is a method of self-preservation.

      TY for your insight–always appreciated:).

  2. Irene SavareseNo Gravatar says:

    Gosh Linda, I love this post!
    Writing all the nonsense down so I can see how stupid and over the top it is helps. I hate to get stuck with it all inside my head.
    Knowing that its not good to compare myself with others I say: “If they can do it – I can too!” Do remember getting my diploma thinking this is it – and, whats the heck do I do now? Still thinking that when the sickness of catastrophizing get’s too me. (spell check don’t like this word).

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Irene! Well, we’re in the same camp, as I’m one of the world’s best catastrophizers! It is a constant battle. One thing that’s been helping is to recite the mantra, “No matter what happens, no matter how bad the situation, I can problem-solve my way out of it.”

      Thanks for sharing:).

  3. (Mr. Cynical) DaveNo Gravatar says:

    Man! You are so right-Linda. This is the worst blog article, by the worst blogger, and I think I’m going to call CPS and the Humane Society so that you will be locked up and the world will be a better place without your poisoned mind and fatal fingers.

    There. I said it.

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Mr Cynical (Dave)–

      And thank you for being the worst office mate on the face of this godforsaken-it’s-only-a-matter-of-time-till-we-all-crash-and burn-anyway-planet–Mwaaah!!

  4. JesseNo Gravatar says:

    Linda,

    Loved this one. I know a few people with Chicken Little Syndrome. I’ve been known to exhibit the symptoms myself, on occasion.

    Here’s what I usually do:

    a.) Resort to hyperbole, ie. – “God, why don’t we just burn the house down while we’re at it, then it wouldn’t matter if it’s such a mess all the time!?” “Who said we need to close the doors just because it’s 5 degrees outside? I bet the neighbors would like us even more if we shared our heat with them.”

    or, the approach that is typically more socially acceptable;

    b.) The grateful approach, ie – “You know, it’s a bummer that your fish died, but we still have two more, and we got to enjoy your fish for four whole days.” “Yes, it sucks that it’s been raining for 12 days straight, but think of how happy all the new plants are, except the ones floating down the street next to the curb.”

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Hahahaha! Jesse–you are too funny. Damn, you should’ve written this post–I’d say your arsenal is much deeper. Ya, I totally agree that humor, the darker the better, tends to be a wonderful anecdote for Chicken Little Syndrome. And believe you me, I should know…:).

      Thanks for providing a hearty laugh! I’ll have to remember the ‘house burning down’ line next time my inner Debbie Disaster strikes:P.

  5. Marco ProsperoNo Gravatar says:

    This happens to me often…my brain definitely has a ring the toilet mode, and parenting is on my list.

    I do a couple of things to snap myself out of it. First I remind myself that as much as I would like to have the power I assume I have…I don’t. I will not be the sole cause of my children’s dysfunction and ultimate ruin as adults (although as a therapist I waffle on that one). I am not powerful enough to set off a chain of events that will lead my clients to regress. I am not “all that.”

    Second, I have a team of BS callers. It includes my little sister and some choice friends. These are people that I trust and I know will call me on my crap. So when I am really going for it and the world is ending I will call one of them and they snap me out of my funk with a comment like, “well call me when it’s over, and you better have put me in your will.” It’s what I need, from a trusted source, to realize I am being a bit dramatic.

    Nice…er…I mean HORRIBLE post Linda. I am sure this is but the beginning of a terrible run of posts that will lead the world to ruin!

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Oh, I love the BS callers–are they for hire?

      Great point about having limited power with clients. I frequently say, “you are the expert on your life. I am here to help unlock some doors, but you know yourself better than anyone. In that vein, you are largely responsible for achieving your goals.” I mean, if therapy isn’t hella hard work, I don’t know what is, right?

      We’re all prone to the dramatics–the good Lord knows I used to be a practicing neurotic;).

      I sure hope this is but the beginning of a terrible, wretched run of posts that will ultimately be responsible for the destruction of mankind. Because, you know, I am “all that.” (!).

      Thanks for your insightful contributions, Marco–much appreciated.

  6. Delena SilverfoxNo Gravatar says:

    Oh huzzah! You mean I actually get to share my inner Chicken Little? Really and truly?

    After much experience, me and my passionately Type A personality have realized that I just can’t be talked down from the rampant catastrophizing once it starts. Unlike being a pressure-release valve that it is for most people, for me it’s more like Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more I kept trying to diffuse Chicken Little, the louder it got.

    So instead (after MUCH trial and error!) I learned to run with it. Okay, fine. What’s the worst that can happen? I let Chicken Little go to town and list everything she can think of. Then I let my stubborn pit bull Type A problem-solving go to work on everything on Chicken Little’s list, one at a time. Then I can focus on the fact that I have a plan even should the absolute worst possible conceivable outcome actually happen.

    That way, even if I still feel terrified and panicking inside (I swear, I’m inches away from a heart attack on a good day, lol) I know that I can still handle whatever comes.

    Delena

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Delena–sounds like active problem-solving at its finest:Chicken Little vs. the Pitbull! I know how seriously exhausting the Type A thing can get–and I’m so thankful I’ve got mine down to a Type B-.

      The whole crux is to know that you always have a plan. One of my favorite sayings is, “There are always options in life.” I like how you’ve accepted that you will likely always have a certain level of anxiety to contend with, that’s just how you’re wired, but the Pitbull is there to help manage the anxiety, panic, catastrophizing, so that it doesn’t manage you.

      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Sean StanekNo Gravatar says:

    Linda–Love your candor and thanks for the laugh. This helps ground me and not to take myself so seriously. I recently got some negative feedback from a client on our satisfaction questionnaire (the EAP I work for sends them out after the file is “closed”) and I tend to be hard on myself and question why I am even a counselor. Taking my thoughts to the extreme like you did in the post actually helps me laugh it off. That, and a good chat with my wifey.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Sean-

      You are so welcome for the laugh! I know it’s hard not to take an intervention outcome seriously, but it’s a fact that not all clients will be satified customers, unfortunately. We all experience interventions that don’t go as planned. All we can do is review our process, and make positive changes. Sometimes feedback (even the unpleasant) can spawn great new things.

      Thanks for stopping by:).

  8. Barbara Ling, MamaBearNo Gravatar says:

    I stomp pretty quickly on negative thinking; I know first-hand how devastating that can really be!

    All of my kids are generally good with that except for HS2; his negative thinking in the past would guarantee him a spot on the Maury show. Luckily, it’s getting much much better…..

  9. Delena SilverfoxNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Linda!

    Y’know, I was thinking earlier today about this post of yours as I found myself being less than graceful under pressure. I like to think that I’m usually pretty graceful about it, and it’s only when I have absolutely no more energy to spare for self-control that I have my emotional spillovers. As I’ve been fond of saying lately, there’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture…

    But I read all of your awesome responses that are *so* unlike what I would give off-the-cuff, and I wonder how much is natural awesomeness on your part, and how much is learned? Where can I learn to have such awesome, constructive responses like that? They’d sure come in handy around here!

    Delena

  10. LindaNo Gravatar says:

    Delena–

    Thanks for the kind words. Let me assure you that if I was sleep deprived when answering the comments, well, let’s just say the comments would be different.

    Putting psychological insight into practice takes so much time and practice. It also helps to do it for a living so you are constantly aware of the importance of self-regulation, practicing calm under pressure, and being mindful of the myriad choices we have daily. It’s about choosing whether to be rude to the barista for taking too long with the mocha; neglecting to or deciding to put back the shirt tried on at the Gap, or snapping at a family member vs. taking a deep breath.

    Basically it’s vowing to change the behaviors you don’t want to continue to live with.

    It all comes with practice, my dear. Experience is the best teacher around. That, and knowing that change takes a long, long, time.

    I know you have a little one, but if there’s one thing to do to help yourself, I’d say to make sleep a priority. We all think, feel, and act healthier when we’re rested.

    Hope this helps…:). Sending positive, restful energy your way.

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  12. TiaNo Gravatar says:

    You know, after reading this, my thoughts are that perhaps it is better to be a catastrophizer around others. At least they can remind you of how silly it is in the moment. But when you do it alone, well, it has the capacity to really mess you up!

    • Linda EspositoNo Gravatar says:

      Tia–

      Now that’s one way to find a positive in the tendency to catastrophize! You’re right–at least if you worry yourself silly someone will put you in check. I never thought of it like that:).

      You know, after re-reading your comment, I’m going to implement this in the therapy room. Fact is that some are not ready to give up the anxiety until it makes sense to do so. This could be a compromise of sorts until healthier coping skills are developed. Awesome!

      Thanks for stopping by:).

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