I really know how to catastrophise. And, at the moment, I think many of you might know it too. Catastrophising or Catastrophic thinking is when our thoughts seem to run away with us, taking us to worse and worse future scenarios in our imaginations. Catastrophic thinking is the ‘what if?’ part of our brain in overdrive. What if this happens? Then that will happen! Oh, and then this! Usually the end of the chain of future scenarios is loss and pain, possibly violence and death.
Firstly, I want to acknowledge that a lot of what we are facing at the moment is real and scary. Loss and pain is real for many people and will continue to be real in the future. I am not about to deny suffering and I’m not about to be unrealistically optimistic about the future. Well-informed, evidence-based predictions don’t always make the future look rosy. And neither should they, just to save us from discomfort. But Catastrophic thinking is not the same as a well-informed, evidence-based prediction. It has a whole different vibe.
Catastrophic Thinking, in my experience, has some recognisable characteristics:
- It thrives when we are alone. It rages on the sofa when the kids have gone to bed and we’re swiping through social media. It has a field day at 3am.
- It isolates us from others. When we are caught up in catastrophic thoughts, it’s hard to hear a loved one tell us that ‘everything will be OK’. Or even worse, we can feel like everyone around us is insane for not seeing things as bleakly as they should.
- It can create a physical and emotional state of hopelessness and despair.
Studies* have associated catastrophic thinking with increased fatigue, poor attention span and greater pain responses. It is also part of the common experience of those who suffer from anxiety and depression.
I’m not going to tell you to cheer up or that everything will be alright. It is not silly to feel this way. In fact, in many ways, it makes lots of sense. The situation we are in is creating huge uncertainty on many fronts – health, food, work, money, education, family and housing. The very basics of our normal lives are being turned upside down. It’s completely natural for our brains to want to respond by doing something. And catastrophising is one of the things it can do. The ‘what if?’ part of our brain is trying very hard to be useful.
It has helped me to understand my catastrophising as my brain’s response to uncertainty. If I don’t know what could happen, then my brain would rather come up with the worst case scenario than sit with the discomfort of not knowing. It’s a form of control. If I jump to the ‘bad ending’, it’s somehow better than not knowing how the story will end. But if I can practice sitting with the discomfort of uncertainty in the present – even for a few moments, I have less need to jump forward to future scenarios. I can say to myself. ‘Yes, things might get really bad. And the truth is I really just don’t know.’
When I catastrophise, my thoughts are taking me away from ‘now’. There is usually no immediate danger in the ‘now’. And if there were, I’d probably cope somehow. I like Ekhart Tolle’s encouragement that ‘You can always cope with the present moment, but you cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection’.
It has also helped me to think of catastrophic thinking as just one place my attention can go. It’s a hard place to get my attention away from, but it is possible. The way I can sometimes do it, is to remember that, when I’m catastrophising, all of my attention is with my thoughts. But with practice, I can exercise choice about where my attention goes. I can switch my attention from inside my head to things outside me – to my cat, my child, the garden. Or can switch my attention from inside my head to my body – the feeling of my back against the chair or my hand stroking the fabric of the sofa. I can switch from being still (I’m usually not moving when I’m catastrophising) to moving – walking, stretching, exercise.
It has also helped me to notice how my catastrophising cuts me off from others. Catastrophic thinking creates distance between me and other people. And in that void it can take even greater hold. Community and contact is a huge antidote if we can find a way to let it support us. We can try to let someone in when they want to reassure us, rather than shutting them out. We can try to keep in touch with others, even when we feel doomy and gloomy. Maybe we can be doomy and gloomy together? Pick up the phone to someone you care about and declare yourself racked with terror. Let’s not do this alone.
*for example Lukkahatai and Saligan 2012