“I notice a lump on my leg. It looks a little strange. Has it grown? Is it discoloured? I keep looking at it and wondering. I think it’s definitely grown since last month. Perhaps I should Google ‘suspicious looking lump’. I am sure it’s cancer. It’s the worst form of cancer; Most certainly fatal”.
This is catastrophizing. In 30 minutes I have gone from spotting a lump to being strongly convicted that I will die from it.
Seems real, right? Well, thats because it is. Like other forms of anxiety, it feels very real. Left unchecked, catastrophic thinking makes me loose my peace, focus, stability and sleep.
What is catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is when we imagine something terrible happening. Such as, “This lump means I have cancer.” It can also be magnifying the consequences of something bad happening. For eg. assuming that if I am late to this meeting, I will be fired.
Catastrophizing is like the old saying ‘making a mountain out of mole hill’. To be more clinical, catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion or false assumption.
What causes catastrophizing?
One of my favorite Ted Talks is, ‘Why We Make Bad Decisions’, psychologist Dan Gilbert explains how we dramatically overestimate the likelihood of dying in a tornado (which is actually rare) and underestimate the likelihood of drowning (which is actually much more likely).
Catastrophizing is also a way we try to protect ourselves from loss. If we allow ourselves to feel how truly wonderful something is (a new relationship, your child graduating, a promotion), we get scared because we also know we can lose this intense joy.
Love and joy feel fantastic, but they leave us vulnerable.
Some of us get so uncomfortable in this vulnerability that we try to preemptively guard against loss.
We say to ourselves: This is too good. It cant last! We start anticipating disaster, failure, and loss. We imagine the worst, sometimes even creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t feel confident in our ability to cope.
The truth is, life is uncertain. We cant protect ourselves from ALL setbacks. Most of the time the setbacks aren’t as bad as we imagined.
More importantly, we have more resiliency, coping skills, and resources to cope than we believe we have!
7 ways to overcome catastrophizing:
1. Awareness. Notice when you are catastrophizing. Awareness is always the first step toward change.
2. Challenge the negative assumptions. Don’t just accept everything you think as fact. We are experts at self-deception. Act like a detective and look for real evidence. I didn’t have any real evidence that I was dying of cancer. All I had was a vague feeling and faulty conclusions.
3. Open yourself to other possibilities. Don’t get fixated on only one possible reason or outcome. Cancer is not the only explanation for my mole looking different.
4. Stay mindfully present. Keep your mind on what is rather than letting it wander off to what-if land.
5. Calm your brain and body. Breathe in slowly and deeply to the count of four. Then exhale for another count of four. Repeat a comforting mantra such as ‘I can handle whatever comes’.
6. Decide if there’s anything you can do to prepare for or prevent catastrophe.
7. Trust that you can cope. Think about all of the bad things that you have already survived. Use this evidence to build your confidence. You can handle whatever comes your way. It’s not easy or pleasant, but you can and you will.
Catastrophizing doesn’t really prepare you to cope with life’s problems. Mostly it just prevents you from enjoying this moment.
And YOU, deserve BETTER.
With love, prayers, and exceptional wishes,
Change your thoughts. Change your life.
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