I notice a mole on my arm.
It looks a little strange.
Has it grown? Is it discolored?
I keep looking at it and wondering. I think it’s definitely grown since last month. Perhaps I should Google “suspicious looking mole.” I’m sure it’s cancer. It’s the worst form of cancer—most certainly fatal.
This is catastrophizing. In 30 minutes I’ve gone from spotting a mole to being strongly convicted that I’ve got a deadly form of cancer.
Seems pretty irrational, right? Well, that’s because it is. Like other forms of anxiety, it feels very real. Left unchecked, I could ruminate on this catastrophic thinking, losing focus and sleep.
What is catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is when we imagine something terrible happening. Such as, “This mole means I have cancer.” It can also be magnify the consequences of something bad happening, such as assuming that if I’m late to this meeting, I’ll 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. Don’t worry—a cognitive distortion sounds worse than it is. And although, catastrophizing can be a symptom of anxiety, depression, and trauma, we all twist up our thinking in unhelpful ways, often without even realizing it.
What causes catastrophizing?
Those of us who tend toward anxiety and overthinking can get especially stuck in this web of catastrophizing. Catastrophizing both stems from and breeds more anxiety, hopelessness, and helplessness.
In one of my favorite Ted Talks, 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). It’s a curious phenomenon resulting in part from the media exposing us to rare events that we come to believe are typical. By definition, events are newsworthy because they don’t happen every day and yet we worry that these terrible events will happen to us or our loved ones.
But 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. What gives? This can’t 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 can’t protect ourselves from bad things. Most of the time, however, the bad things aren’t as bad as we imagine. And even more importantly, we have more resiliency, coping skills, and resources to cope than we think!
Ways to overcome catastrophizing:
- Awareness. Notice when you’re catastrophizing. Awareness is always the first step toward change.
- Challenge the negative assumptions. Don’t just accept everything you think as fact. We’re 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.
- 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. Now you can consider the complexity and the unknown and work on accepting that sometimes you don’t know what’s coming next.
- Stay mindfully present. Keep your mind on what is rather than letting it wander off to what-if land. You can do this by using all of your senses to focus on small truths rather than drawing conclusions.
- Calm your brain and body. Breathe slowly and deeply in for the count of four and then exhale for another count of four. Repeat a comforting mantra such as “everything is as it should be” or “I can handle whatever comes”.
- Decide if there’s anything you can do to prepare for or prevent catastrophe. I live surrounded by earthquake fault lines. Clearly, I can’t prevent or predict earthquakes. All I can do is make an earthquake emergency kit and recognize that I can’t control Mother Nature and worrying about it won’t leave me better prepared.
- Trust that you can cope. Think about all of the bad things that you’ve 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 is like your old, ratty security blanket. It’s comfortable, but it’s getting in your way.
Catastrophizing doesn’t really prepare you to cope with life’s problems. Mostly it just prevents you from enjoying this moment.
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Originally published on PsychCentral.