One of the thought patterns I see all the time—and used to do myself (ok, I still sometimes do it now)—is catastrophizing. Something small goes wrong or maybe nothing at all is wrong, and your brain spins a tale of the actual worst possible scenario. Maybe you find a bump on your arm, and your brain soon has diagnosed you with cancer and has you living in a hospice with only a few days to live. Or your partner didn’t text you all day and you decide that they are either dead on the side of the road or are cheating on you or have decided to leave you.
Because of our human negativity bias, our brain’s protective mechanism that loves to bring the worst case scenario to mind in the absence of information your brain fills the void. But it fills with the biggest catastrophe you can imagine, and all of a sudden there you are: catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing feels so bad!
So if it feels so bad, and truly gets us nowhere, why do we do this?
For those of us with perfectionist thought habits, when any little thing goes wrong, it feels like a catastrophe because we’re so anxious about appearing perfect to ourselves and others. We have built our identity and worth on everything going exactly right, so any deviation from that is a real problem in our brains. I find this is doubly true of those raised with perfectionism and a lot of performance-demands in childhood like the A+ was always expected or love was withheld. That perfectionism in the household meant that your child mind equates things being off-kilter with deep danger.
Likewise if things were super chaotic growing up, then more chaos, more disturbances in the field lead you to spin on out to the worst case. For parentified children, we learned early to over-function, and we are so used to working so hard to keep the whole world spinning (cause that’s our job, right?) that anything that effs with our plan just feel like way too much because we’ve codependently taken on not just our own issues but actually everyone else’s too.
When we have externalized our self worth like we do from codependent thinking—relying on our accomplishments or other people to show us we are worthy, when our anchor isn’t internal —any change in the world can feel very destabilizing. So when you are dependent on your partner to help you feel worthy and good, not getting a text from them has a weight and importance that feels vital. The absence or loss of that is scary, and our brains start to imagine what it would be like if we lose that connection altogether.
When our catastrophizing habits interact with our insecure attachment it can create a whole maelstrom of mental and somatic, bodily, garbage.
Let’s say you run towards anxious attachment and a date doesn’t text for a hot NY minute. Your brain goes to: they must not like me anymore. And it’s not long before you’re in an abandonment story. You start texting your date, a lot. Then you start calling your friends: of course they are ghosting me, I’ll never be happy. You just strengthen this story in your mind about your unlovability.
If your attachment system tends to run more avoidant you may not hear from a date in a minute and you may say “well, forget them then. I was never that into them anyway, I don’t even need them.” Which can quickly spin out into “I don’t need anyone. I don’t need love or care or coregulation of my nervous system. I am fiercely independent.”
I’m here to tell you that another way is possible, a more securely attached way, a more interdependent way.
At its core, catastrophizing is a way of trying to regain a sense of control.
When we hit one of these places of uncertainty—where we do not or cannot know the outcome—our brain freaks out. If you have a symptom in your body, from a rash to a sore throat to a lump, and you don’t know what it is, you’re faced with uncertainty. It feels scary. If your catastrophizing habit takes over, and you convince yourself you have cancer, your brain can say “at least I know what I’m dealing with.”
There can be a certain kind of fascinating comfort—even in the worst case scenario—of knowing what you are facing. Your brain can be like “yeah, that’s terrible, but I know what to do. I’ll make my will and plan my memorial service. I’ll also call everyone I know and will tell them about my impending mortality so they can soothe me since I don’t trust me to soothe my nervous system right now.” Et hmm.
See that casual bit of codependent thinking there? Instead of soothing yourself you rope others in to try to do it for you. You get to move from uncertainty to action in your mind. The problem of course is that you’ve stressed yourself all the way out, and that terrible painful story your brain is telling? It’s likely not true and you’ve just wasted an enormous amount of emotional and mental energy on a falsehood and on something you have zero control over.
The other thing about this kind of future-tripping is that when you’re in it, it’s the action you’re taking, like worrying, and you have also lost the present moment.
When we catraopshize, we cannot be present to the here and now, and we miss out on all the beauty and joy right here, right now.
You’re trading in today for the story that you may be prepared for tomorrow, and it’s just not a trade I’m willing to make anymore.
Catastrophizing is also a way your brain tries to protect you by essentially beating yourself to the punch.
The idea of being “caught off guard’ with bad news can be intolerable, so we just decide to go right to the bad news to prevent the shock and awe. It can also protect us from getting our hopes up, especially if we were disappointed a lot as children.
If we tell ourselves that nothing good ever happens or the worst is likely going to happen, we think we are protecting ourselves against disappointment. If I think about everything potentially terrible that happens before it happens and I can get ahead of it, I can keep things from being so bad. By expecting it to happen, right, because then I never get my hopes up.
So then I can never be let down because I already knew it was going to be terrible. Like all buffering, this keeps us from seeing the potential good, feeling pleasure and joy and peace and happiness in our lives when we’re so anxiously focused on catastrophizing.
My nerds, lest you blame, shame, judge or guilt yourself for all of this, remember that this habit is so wicked mammalian!
Our brains were wired, way back in the day, with a negativity bias and to freak out over what might be a lion on the horizon. Most of the time when this is our habit, things feel like lion attacks when they’re really just a tiny not-much, and we blow them up into end of the world level bad, but that’s not the only choice, right?
When you use Thought Work, the T-F-A Cycle, to learn how to see your own thinking, you can start to get that cognitive distance that lets you say “this is just my brain being a brain. I don’t have to choose to believe these thoughts, I don’t have to borrow them from my mom or dad or whomever. I can choose my own thoughts, right now, in this one moment. I can bring me back to here and now. I can recognize the parts of me that are in fight, flight or freeze, and I can show up as my own most loving parent to reparent my inner children, with gentle firmness and care.”
It’s important to recognize just how deeply our own lived experiences and those of our ancestors interact with our biology. Murine studies (which is a nerd’s way of saying studies on mice) have been done where they stressed out a generation of mice, and I’m not saying this is a kind thing to do to sweet little meeces, I’m just saying it happened. They stressed the mice, and then measured their stress hormones and those of their eventual offspring, and their babies showed elevated levels of stress hormones, presumably through epigenetic changes secondary to the stressing of their mama-mice.
This is to say that ancestral stress lives on within our bodies.
This is especially true for folks from marginalized and oppressed identities, like QTBIPOC folks, women, disabled folks.
My tender ravioli, it is vital to learn how to break free from this cycle because if you don’t, if you keep spinning in things being The Actual Worst, your brain will continue to be on high-alert and freak out mode. Flooding your body with anxiety and continuing to normalize that state for you.
Of course you will seek the short-term-easy comforts that folks with our thought habits love: seeking outside validation, insisting that someone else make you feel worthy of love and care by soothing you instead of you leaning on yourself and your own strength, and of course, since we love to numb out to avoid our feelings, buffering or attempting to push your emotions away with anything from alcohol and other substances to Netflix to overthinking and ruminating, which are also buffers because they keep you spinning in your catastrophic narrative that everything is terrible instead of sitting with the discomfort of your fear, sadness or other feelings in your body.
What we forget in these moments when everything feels so big and overwhelming is that there is a balance between never planning for the future and catastrophizing.
We do live in a sometimes turbulent and unpredictable world. Pack your “emergency go bag” if you live in an area with lots of forest fires, earthquakes or flooding. Have some savings set aside when possible in case you lose your job or need to leave your relationship.
Plan and release instead of living in the space where you expect and believe that the worst thing will happen all the time.
Instead of thinking “my house is definitely going to burn down; I need to get my shit together.” You can think, “The likelihood of a fire here is low, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared to leave if I have to,” and then set it aside. The difference is that you are not living in the negative future you have imagined or convinced yourself is inevitable.
Life deals us uncertainty and challenges, but catastrophizing actually makes us less able to deal with things effectively.
When you can see and pause the catastrophizing and take some breaths and stay grounded, that’s when you can take thoughtful action.
Pause and consider this: when you continue to spin in catastrophizing and create all these challenging emotions for yourself you stay spun up in sympathetic activation or collapse into dorsal vagal, deer in the headlights. From there you are not centered or grounded in you.
Your brain and body aren’t getting what they need to actually help you respond to life, so while your habitual thinking may tell you that this kind of thinking keeps you prepared, it actually makes you less able to respond to real-life stressors while you’re walking around low-key stressed and anxious all the time, awash in adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol.
While I do love planning, I don’t pin my hopes of survival on my emergency go-bag. Instead, I recognize that I am the key to my survival.
I am the thing that keeps me safe, together with my beloved community and social connections, which I can foster and build when I’m in ventral vagal.
So when I get tense, I start with honoring my sympathetic activation and then bringing myself back into ventral vagal, the safe and social, connected part of my nervous system, which is key to thinking clearly and making decisions for my best wellness. Decisions made from sympathetic are not usually the best ones my darling.
Learning how to regulate your nervous system is vital for stepping out of this catastrophizing habit.
You are what keeps you safe. The more you’re able to come back to you, the safer you’ll feel, mind, body and spirit.
Our remedies start here with compassionate awareness, acceptance and then action. Note of course that catastrophizing is attempting to jump right into action without pausing for the first two important steps.
Oh hello brain! Of course I went to there. I learned early that I had to over exaggerate to get care. That’s been my habit. I don’t have to avoid these thoughts, I can look right at them and can own them. Love them up. Thank them even, and remind them that you’re actually safe in this moment. Your thoughts are trying to protect you.
Because the opposite, being mean to yourself, will just flood you with more sympathetic activation, potentially dropping you into dorsal once you exhaust yourself, and you can’t do good thinkings from there.
Instead, from self-love, you can ask yourself what you are actually worried about.
For most of us, coming from codependent, people pleasing, perfectionist thought habits, what we fear is how we will feel if things don’t turn out the way we want them to the way that makes us believe we will feel in-control, and thus, safe.
This is where reparenting comes in, so you can remind the scared parts of you that you never have to beat you up, you never have to call you a failure in a bad way. You always get to ground yourself in your body and from there can choose your next thought knowing it will create your next feeling—spin in the doom and gloom thoughts, feel all the doom and gloom feelings.
Work on living in your whole body, not just from the neck up. That starts with getting in touch with the sensations in your body and the feeling words you put on those sensations.
When you get present to the sensations without labelling them as terrible, they dissipate more easily on their own, because you stop adding fuel to the fire.
You just get present with them and then you can choose how you want to continue to think and thus feel about those sensations, which creates new sensations.
Next, really let your brain go to town on the worst case scenario.
I like to ask myself “what next?” or “then what happens?” or “then what?”
So your date doesn’t text you back on your timeline—then what?
- They’re abandoning me.
- Then what?
- Then I won’t have them!
- Then what?
- Then I’ll be alone?
- Then what?
- Then I’ll feel sad.
- Then what?
- Then I’ll have to go back on the dating apps.
- Then what?
- Then I’ll feel dating anxiety all over again.
Let your brain really spin out and get concrete about each outcome.
It’s like when your dog is barking at something outside the window. It’s trying to warn you and do its job, just like your brain is. So let it. Screaming at your dog doesn’t do much because it just riles them up again. So don’t scream at your brain, let it do its job.
Our brains love to grab onto the worst thing it can imagine without really playing it out, and often enough, the actual worst case scenario is that we feel a feeling we are very uncomfortable with.
Our brains stop somewhere else before we even get to seeing that what we fear is either a challenging emotion, like disappointment or sadness, or we fear other people’s judgement, or we fear that we won’t be able to handle a potential eventuality.
This is when we get to remind ourselves that we really can do hard things, that we have evidence that we have found a new job, a new apartment, a new date before, that we have lived through loss and death and grief and have survived it. You don’t have to allow your brain to take you to the Pit of Despair, you truly don’t, you don’t have to let your brain believe that the terribleness is the only option. But first, play it out. Worst worst case scenario.
Next, I’ll invite you to do the same thing with the best case scenario.
You give this lecture and everyone loves it and you get a raise and a promotion or tenure and a book deal and you reach like 473 life goals in one hour and you’re on the cover of every magazine and you’re golden. Play it out. Get ridiculous, in the best sense of the word.
Then compare the two lists and ask yourself, not your inner children, but your adult self, your own most loving parent, what the most likely outcome is.
What’s the likely middle ground here?
When you recognize what’s likely, you can focus there, and can give your brain a chance to rest, relax and be in the flow of things versus trying to control, to manipulate people and situations to go or be your way. When you’re in that flow state, your nervous system is more likely to be in a regulated state more often, which gives you more access to your own mind, your own cognitive capacities.
Then you can actually make the smart decisions which can potentially steer life closer to that best case scenario and can remind you that you truly can survive the worst-case scenarios.
Stressing about them, catastrophizing, staying low-key anxious in your life, never helped a darn thing, never led you to feel more safe, which is the subconscious goal of catastrophizing, right? Instead, you can chose to feel safe in and with yourself now as your own most loving adult, can soothe your inner children and can regulate your perfect nervous system, to honor your conditioned responses and to start to create new neural grooves in your mind that steer you towards the equanimity of the middle path.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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