Catastrophizing as a Form of Self-Protection?

Considering the health-related and economic effects of the pandemic, and the fact that we’re in the final weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, it isn’t surprising to come across doom-and-gloom pronouncements virtually everywhere.

If you have a tendency to catastrophize – to dwell on the worst possible outcomes for every scenario – the constant state of red alert may be strengthening your tendency to brood over all the terrible things that could happen, whether tomorrow or next year.

Generally, catastrophizing isn’t helpful. It’s one thing to make plans and provisions, as best you can, for when something may go wrong. It’s quite another thing to get swept away in darker and darker thoughts about the future, and to obsessively visualize the most terrible things happening. Your mind is in turmoil over things that may never happen.

In a strange way, catastrophizing can make you feel powerful and helpless at the same time. Powerful, because you feel as if you know the future, every detail of it. About 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the video I’ve shared at the top of the post, there’s a part I want to highlight: the idea that catastrophizing may serve a protective function, because you feel as if you’re using it to fight against uncertainty and save yourself from future disappointment.

Basically, you feel like nothing bad can shock or overwhelm you because you already expect it. But how much power does brooding over catastrophes actually give you?

Catastrophizing may protect you from taking all kinds of risks. However, some of these risks may be worth taking, such as learning a new skill, or approaching someone to ask them out on a date or hopefully become their friend. Thanks to catastrophizing, you imagine nightmare outcomes even for situations that are mildly or moderately risky. Maybe you fear rejection, for instance, so you imagine harsh and humiliating outcomes to keep yourself from approaching someone and potentially exposing yourself to their indifference or dislike.

What if something terrible does happen? Even if you’re overestimating the possibility of horrific outcomes, there’s still a chance of catastrophe. What then?

For one thing, you can’t know exactly how everything will play out. Even if you imagine a horrible scenario, it won’t unfold exactly the same way in real life. There are factors you aren’t thinking about and twists and turns you can’t anticipate.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. For example, you may be underestimating your capacity to deal with a terrible situation. Maybe you’ll be able to act in ways you can’t currently imagine or haven’t even considered. Maybe there are avenues of help you don’t know about, other people who will assist you or resources that will become available to you. Even if what you fear is a recurrence of something, maybe this time around you’ll have a greater capacity to deal with it, in part because of the knowledge and wisdom you’ve gained.

When you’re catastrophizing, you may confuse the intensity of your thoughts with the certainty of your knowledge. Turmoil doesn’t mean truth. For better and worse, you can’t predict everything. But it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of the worst thing happening and underestimate our own ability to respond to it better than we can imagine.

I wrote this post in part as a reminder to myself, and also because it may be helpful to other people in this crazy year and beyond. One of my friends told me that in the midst of catastrophizing she tries to at least get something out of it – like thinking of a solution to a future problem or thinking of something she can change in her life now. The challenge is to not let the thoughts become obsessive and paralyzing.

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