Learning To Go On After Catastrophizing

Creative Commons photo.

Catastrophizing is like your brain allowing you into its computational room, where in slow motion, you see all the screens with all the thoughts firing at once, and you’re swiveling and swiveling and spiraling and spiraling and somehow, you’re then able to zoom in on the worst possible thought flaring up on a particular screen until a wire bursts into flames and you’re ushered back out of the room into reality. That could also describe anxiety. I think there exists overlap.

I don’t want to explain what happened to me last night, but I had a moment that resembled the above analogy: The moment in question happened so fast, probably not longer than a span of five seconds, but in those five seconds, I saw all the screens with all the potential outcomes and zeroed in on the worst outcome. That experience is a combination of being surreal and out-of-body. I was catastrophizing. I was assuming that the worst would happen. And to be fair to my brain, it was a bad situation, objectively speaking. I wasn’t taking a nothing or minimal situation and extrapolating out, or catastrophizing out, to something much, much worse. But still, I was taking a bad situation and catastrophizing out to the worst possible outcome.

Before antidepressants and the tools given to me by therapy, if what happened to me last night happened two years ago, I would have spiraled without end. I would have hit bottom. It would have been bad and ugly. Because what catastrophizing without a safety net — without those tools — does to you, and has done to me, is it makes you suddenly unable to see how to live to the next day. It makes you think, How can I possibly face the next 10 minutes, much less the next day, next week, after what just happened?

In the past, I’ve had situations occur that weren’t as bad as what happened last night, and my brain would go to that place. I would land on thinking, Okay, I don’t want to live now, because I can’t possibly face what just happened. I’d rather be dead.

But the weird thing is, even in those scenarios, and in the current scenario, I did keep living. I did face it, in one way or another. That is quite weird, right? On some level? That for a moment in time, our brains get to such a point that we can’t foresee what comes next, or how it could possibly come next, and then it does. Life keeps going on, and takes you with it. This doesn’t just occur in matters of mentally unwell catastrophizing, but also in grief. I’ve previously written about how bizarre it seemed to me that after my grandpa died in 2007, we went to IHOP to eat. Huh? Eat now? After that? At a time like this? How could the world possibly keep going, and expect us to do normal things, no less?

The latter is the rub: How am I supposed to continue on doing what I’m supposed to be doing having experienced something that, for a time, I thought was world-ending — my world-ending? I find it hard to explain what anti-depressants and therapy have done to help me find that safety net when catastrophizing so I don’t go too far with it. But one thing I can point to is offering up rational reasons to myself that my catastrophizing is wrong. As an example, I was thinking I was the worst for what happened, and that it was my fault. Then I started offering up rational counters: No, this has happened to other people. You are not unique in this moment; sorry, ego. That abates, or at least, slows down, the catastrophizing. That technique works in other spiraling moments, too.

How do you deal with catastrophizing?

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