The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!
Listen, Tina's been there. She's been Chicken Little, so sure that it wasn't an acorn. THE SKY WAS FALLING! This is what we call catastrophizing. And it's a real thing that can affect our thoughts, emotions, relationships, and day to day functioning.
Today we will hear about catastrophizing - what it is, and what it isn't. We'll also talk about simple ideas to take control and stop the spiraling it gets us into.
If your default is set to "worst case scenarios with no other options to consider" … then today is for you!
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Hello again my friends. I’m such a sucker for punishment that I chose a topic today, that I have a hard time saying. Don’t judge. It’s not even necessarily a hard word to say… for most people, but for some reason I have always struggled to get it out of my mouth. I just can’t pronounce it well.
But at the risk of sounding ridiculous, probably several times, it’s an important topic. One that I think is relevant to many of us. I have certainly done my fair share of it over the years… but became aware of it and have worked really hard to recognize it and work with it and I must say… I’m not doing too bad at keeping it under control.
So, I’m going to talk about it today, and all you fellow Chicken Little’s are going to know exactly what I’m talking about.
Ya, I said Chicken Little. Remember that little character from the children’s Fairy Tale? Sometimes we also hear the name as Henny Penny or Chicken Licken.
Uh huh. This chick has an acorn fall on its head and all of a sudden it’s the end of the world. Literally.
Remember that? From an acorn to “the sky is falling; the sky is falling”.
Yes! You remember. Our poor little neurotic chickee who went very quickly into panic mode and thinking the absolute worst probable outcome, based on very little fact, and a lot of fear.
Oh yes, our Little Henny Penny did a real quick jump from what was that, to we’re all gonna die.
Yep, so who, if we were all in a room together right now, would be avoiding eye contact? Cause that’s so YOU.
Well, I think I’m missing that gene that cares if you look like an idiot, so I’ll just put my hand right up in the air and say ME.
Ya, the word I have a hard time saying, but what we are really talking about here, is catastrophizing.
I really have to think and focus my way through the word when I say it. I’m sorry (lol).
Man, can I tell you, I have kicked the snot outta that way of thinking over the years. AND I have worked really hard to move that out of my natural way of thinking. And I can say it really doesn’t happen much anymore.
But I didn’t work on that because I was afraid people would see me as someone who did that. I had to get that under wraps for my own peace.
Catastrophizing is a very anxious way to live. It’s scary and exhaustive. And it continuously throws you into survival mode to be able to handle what’s coming. Which is the worst thing imaginable.
Or, the worst thing that is happening, as you read between the lines and envision all the scenarios that make sense to you and reaffirm the worst thoughts you could have.
But it’s not just having the thought. It’s fixating on the thought. It’s playing it over and over again, building the evidence that proves you are right. And sticking to it. Unmovable no matter what anyone tells you differently.
Ringing any bells for anyone? Now don’t panic. We aren’t just going to talk about what it is. We are also going to discuss simple ideas you can put into practice immediately to combat this way of thinking.
Now, if you’re someone who thinks through the possible outcomes when in a situation or evaluating what a situation really is and can see the negative, that’s not catastrophizing. That’s critical thinking. Important. Healthy.
Again, like we said, it’s imagining the worst or seeing something as much worse than it is, and not being able to stop that train of thought, no matter how unprobeable it is.
We all have negative thoughts sometimes, but it’s the spiral of negativity that causes such harm. And it’s within that spiral that we take random events and use them as evidence for the thought.
On a past episode, I used the example of asking Shale to make his bed before he went out. And Shale getting busy in preparing to leave and being excited about where he was going and then his ride coming and him leaving without making his bed.
And what really happened? Well, I just said. He was busy getting ready. He was excited and not thinking. His ride came. He left.
And that’s it.
BUT… What did I make it into?
He didn’t make his bed. He didn’t listen to me. He NEVER listens to me. Because he doesn’t respect me. He doesn’t care about me or anything I ask him to do. No one in this house does. No one on this planet does. No one cares about me or respects me. Everyone hates me.
Yep. And that’s how it can happen. That quick. From an acorn to we’re all gonna die.
Didn’t make his bad. Everyone hates me.
But then what happens from there is that you go around the house and you see the pair of socks on the floor beside the couch. No feet near the couch. Just a pair of socks. In an empty room. And do you know why?
Because! Everyone hates me. And this is more evidence. The person who took these socks off and left them beside the couch walked out of this room saying, “the stupid woman who lives in this house can pick them up because I hate her so much, I want to show her. With these socks, just what I think of her”.
I know that sounds crazy as we listen to it right in this moment. Or maybe someone listening is in the middle of their own spiral saying, “Yes girl. You get it. The same thing happens in my house of hateful humans out to destroy me”.
I can honestly tell you that it sounds crazy to hear myself say an exact experience. But I’m being vulnerably honest here. I can happen like that, and it has happened like that – for me.
It’s seeing a mole that doesn’t quite look right. And googling it. And being sure it’s cancer and so making a doctor’s appt. That is critical thinking. That is taking the right steps to being responsible for your health and well-being.
But then you tell your friends and family that you are sure you have cancer. You are just awaiting the results. And, you’d like to have this music at your funeral.
I’m not making fun of anything to do with cancer. Cancer is personal to me. To many of us. I’m not making a joke about it.
I’m not making a joke about the worry and anxiety associated with catastrophizing either. This is how it can go.
It’s when you see the doctor after your tests, and they say you are completely fine. All is ok. And you’re so far into your spiral that you don’t believe them. They must be wrong.
You don’t even get the chance to have that sigh of relief that comes from confirmed good news. Because you’ve already gone so far into the worst-case scenario that you’re stuck there.
Negative or worried thinking wasn’t the issue. As human beings it’s a default setting we have. It’s part of survival and self-preservation. We think what terrible thing could happen, ok, so now I need to have a plan ready should I need it. I need to make decisions that steer me away from that possibility.
Catastrophizing is when we think of what terrible thing could happen, and then assume it will and then plan for that. Or we imagine what terrible thing is happening, and we are in it.
We seem to miss the piece where we can do something about it. Either physically in some sort of way that removes us, removes the threat or has us dealing with it the best way we can.
When we catastrophize, we can do nothing but see it for what it is. The worst thing ever.
Now, catastrophizing, in and of itself, is not a mental health disorder. You don’t get diagnosed with it. It is commonly associated with other mental health conditions and disorders, like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s also common for people living with chronic pain.
Catastrophizing is also not any kind of evidence that you have a strong intuition for bad things happening.
We have to be careful with that in particular, because if we believe that it is evidence that we know what is coming, we will look for proof that we were right.
And if we wake up every morning with the goal of finding what is wrong and terrible in our world today… guess what we will find. Lots!
We have to be mindful of what we go looking for. Because that is exactly what we will find.
And we will then be labelling things that could be, as what most certainly is.
What we do is take a fear and worry and feed it, so it grows and before long we are in the spiral that feeds itself and sustains itself. And before long, a random spoon in the sink instead of the dishwasher has you looking at apartments because no one cares about you at home and won’t miss you anyways.
And it was just a spoon. Or was it? Because it certainly feels like more evidence to the thought that everyone is conspiring against you to make you have to pick up after them because they are trying to show you how much they hate you.
And again. I’m not making light of this. I know firsthand how damaging this can be to your mental health, relationships, and day-to-day functioning.
But if some of my examples sound utterly ridiculous, that’s because much of what we panic and spiral about through catastrophe thinking, is utterly ridiculous.
The problem is that it doesn’t FEEL ridiculous. It FEELS real.
It feels like our whole life is going to fall apart because of one interaction. It feels we are desperately doomed because of one mistake. It feels like there is no coming back from that decision or that experience.
EVERYTHING NOW IS JUST BAD. EVERYTHING.
I know, the first step in dealing with this is going to be a bummer. Because we are sick of people saying:
“Breathe. Stop and breathe”.
Especially when we are in the middle of a real panic attack, someone saying gently to us, “just breathe”, makes us want to yell back:
“I AM”. Or “I’M TRYING TO”.
But as annoying as that can feel, being told to breathe, I hate to say it, but they aren’t wrong.
Our brain works on signals, and it works all together with signals.
When we sense danger, or a threat of danger, our body reacts. Our brain releases chemicals to help us be stronger and faster in case we need to run or fight. For the same reason our heart pumps faster to send blood flowing and our lungs pump faster to dispense oxygen.
Self-talk saying, “I’m ok, I’m not going to worry about this” really does very little when we are physically reacting to take care of ourselves.
But when we take control of our breathing, and slow it down, it sends signals back to the body to say, “I don’t need all this oxygen, the crisis is averted. The heart then slows down and the brain stops pumping out all the chemicals and it starts to restore itself to a resting phase. Where your survival brain can relax and let your thinking brain re-engage.
It’s only then that you are able to perceive the events better and thing your way through, logically, making decisions that are better suited for the real situation, and not based on surviving what is most likely the end of the world, as it was felt to be when your whole body was reacting.
Once you’ve calmed your body down and reactivated the thinking part of your brain, it’s easier for the next step, which is trying to put things into context.
What is this? Really?
This is where you are looking for some context. The event is different here from the thoughts and the feelings of the event.
The event? Shale didn’t make his bed.
The thought? He doesn’t care about me. Doesn’t respect me.
The feeling? Disrespected, unloved, lonely, sad.
Do those thoughts and feelings match the event? Should an unmade bed result, naturally, in those thoughts and feelings?
Ummmm, ya. Maybe not.
So now I know that I may be jumping to something.
Keep it about the event. Make a plan. Don’t make the plan personal.
Making a plan is different than taking action. Making a plan is using your logical brain to feel like you are in control. And we don’t do this before we breathe, because we need to breathe to return to logic.
If we tried to make a plan before breathing, we would just be acting out of survival and protecting ourselves and it will be fight or flight. Not at all helpful when catastrophizing. That feeds the spiral.
Do you know how much time, effort, and heartache, not to mention mental strife I would have saved myself if I had learned this earlier?
How quickly it would have been over if I had text Shale and said, “I know you probably forgot but not cool bud. When I ask you to make your bed I actually want you to make your bed”.
Because I know his reply would have been, “sorry mom. I did totally forget. I love you. See you later”.
N one hates me. In fact, they actually love me.
That would have made those socks frustrating. But not evidence of my family falling apart and the world turning its back on me.
The spoon would have had me hollering, “what is wrong with you people? I’m not the maid”. Which is very different than looking into starting a life on my own on an island for the mistreated.
You know what I’m saying?
Practicing that kind of thinking sure helps when you find a mole that looks funny.
Because we are going to worry. We are going to think of the worst case scenario. But we will also be able to say, “I don’t know anything yet. So, I’ll make an appointment with the doctor and wait for results and handle what they are when I get them”.
Your goal can’t be to not ever worry. You’re going to.
But the goal is to keep it in context. Breathe. Look at the event and make sure your thoughts and feelings align. Know that it was an acorn. Not actually a piece of sky.
Know you do have a plan. Work your plan until you need a new one.
When you get results you need a new plan.
To refocus cause this is nothing.
Or to proceed with the best treatment cause that’s where we’re at. Just the new phase of the plan.
But work to stay out of the spiral. By breathing and keeping in context.
Journaling these experiences help you look back and identify patterns in your thoughts and feelings and behaviors.
Being mindful of your default patterns helps you break them.
I really did get to a place where a spiral could just be starting and I could say, “I know what this is”.
Just identifying it helped me jump to the other steps.
Identifying gives you back so much power and a sense of control. Which is so important.
We can’t give the power to the spiral.
We are dealing with a habit of defaulting to the worst, and the spiral that happens when we feed the worst into growing bigger.
Journaling also helps us to release some of the pent-up thoughts and emotions that are bouncing off each other while floating inside us. Putting them on paper gets them out of us. Puts them in front of us where it’s easier to deal with them. It makes more space in our heads for other perspectives.
And on paper, they are not floating and bouncing. They are stuck. Right where you wrote them. And they are now contained to an 8 and a ½ by 11 boundary. And that seems more manageable.
When you are calmer, have more logical thinking at your disposal, and have your thoughts on paper in front of you, it’s also easier to decipher what is possible, vs what is likely.
It is possible that the whole world will come to some sort of knowledge of who I am and then decide to hate me, but it is unlikely that will happen.
Ok. I’m already sorting this through.
It is possible that all the people in my home have had a secret meeting, and all agreed to leave things lying around because they want me to go insane and move to an island.
But it is unlikely that is what’s happening.
This is also the place where, with more room in your head for alternative perspectives, you can entertain alternative possibilities.
Is it possible that Shale left excited and just forgot? Is it possible that someone took their socks off and didn’t think about them again, and just needed a reminder? Is it possible that the spoon is in the sink instead of the dishwasher because someone was lazy, not actually hatefully malicious?
This action and these possibilities stop a spiral in its tracks. It’s breaking the autopilot that was set for a spiral dive.
And if you have someone you can trust who will say what you need to hear, and not judge you in the meantime, talk to them about all this.
They’ll confirm your new perspectives and help put the catastrophe to bed.
Once you’ve been able to do this a couple of times, this is what to go to as part of the process of pulling yourself out of catastrophic thinking. Remind yourself that you’ve been able to handle all this thinking before.
That helps you focus on solutions. Opportunities for solutions. NOT, opportunities for worst case scenarios.
Because lies can run wild until they are overtaken by the truth.
Take care today my friends. May we all learn to see our acorns as acorns! And nothing more.
Until next time, this is Tina saying, it may just be an unmade bed, a sock, a spoon, or a weird looking mole. Let’s let it be just that.
And let’s speak again soon.