The first time I heard this term I was sitting in my GP’s office having my anti-anxiety medication script re-filled. Cool as a cucumber, she looked at me and said “Anita, have you been catastrophising again?” It’s a great word – applicable to myriad scenarios.
I decided to write about “catastrophising” a week or so ago and since then it has manifested itself in many conversations.
Let me start with a definition:
“When a person experiences an unhelpful emotion (e.g. depression and anxiety), it is usually preceded by a number of unhelpful self-statements and thoughts. Often there is a pattern to such thoughts and we call these “unhelpful thinking styles”. One of the things we have noticed is that people use unhelpful thinking styles as an automatic habit. It is something that happens outside of our awareness. However, when a person consistently and constantly uses some of these styles of thinking, they can often cause themselves a great deal of emotional distress.”
Some of the great catastrophisers of our time include Chicken “The Sky is Falling” Little and the child in Kindergarten Cop who suggests Arnold Schwarzenegger’s headache is most likely a brain tumor. This may seem amusing, but this poor kid probably had a mother like me – I’ll explain later.
It’s a funny old world we live in, which facilitates, encourages and endorses a catastrophic way of thinking. Just watch the news. My 3yo once asked me why I watch the news; my 6yo answered – “it’s because you need to find out all the bad things that have happened in the world”. My 6yo is a Master Catastrophiser (hence his nickname: “Worst-Case-Scenario-Mario” or “The Master of Disaster”), but I think he is bang-on in this observation.
For a watered down (but doubly toxic) version of “monsters under the bed” reporting, catch a glimpse of “A Current Affair” or “Today Tonight”! Helping you keep one step ahead of all of those trades-people and supermarkets that make it their life’s work to rip you off. Oh, puh-lease.
My husband comes home from work exhausted and beaten; dying a death of a thousand cuts – paper-cuts that is! The industry in which he works is living proof of The Chaos Theorem. Instead of a butterfly flapping its wings in Santiago – if a man falls off a ladder in Broadmeadows, the rest of the building industry drowns in red tape and paperwork now – and ad infinitum.
When – exactly – did we stop taking responsibility for our own actions?
If I trip over raised concrete in the street – making me look and feel like a bit of a dill – should the council / the layer of the concrete / the tree’s roots that lifted the concrete / the planter of the tree / the creator of all things pay [me] for that?
Whilst catastrophising ensures I feel that EVERYTHING is my responsibility, I live in a litigious society which promotes the fact that it’s all someone else’s fault!
I choose to laugh at myself tripping over the tree root, bung a Band-Aid on my face and learn to watch where I’m walking. Accidents happen. Move on – more carefully. You can take this on good authority as a woman with a ripping scar and nine screws permanently in her left hand after a martini-induced dance-floor mishap. With friends…at home.
I previously worked in a sales role in which I lived and died by the monthly numbers.
Here, the world ended (for some people, quite literally) on the last day of the month. It began again on Day 1 of the following. It was constantly and oppressively stressful. It was an environment in which it was very hard to achieve just the sales targets, let alone navigate the vicious office politics.
A previous boss of mine, whom I hold in very high regard as a coach and mentor and who remains a good friend, offered me advice once on how to survive the environment. He told me to always prepare for – and expect – the worst, so whatever happens will always be better than what you imagined.
This person also unconsciously chews the hair off his arms under stress, suffered a minor stroke and has on-going heart concerns – so whilst I appreciate the sentiment, hindsight suggests I take these pearls of wisdom with a couple of handfuls of salt. He, on the other hand, should probably lay off it.
We are both out of that game now. Relaxed, happy and successful – able to enjoy a laugh about “those days” together with our families – over a few “too many” vinos!
Catastrophising is not purely a corporate phenomenon. In fact, it was not until I became a mother that I truly unearthed my innate talent to catastrophise.
Becoming a mother raises the stakes immediately. It begins in pregnancy.
The books. Oh! The books. I stopped reading the books.
I was convinced early in the gestational period that eating a single piece of soft cheese was going to result in my having a child with severe disabilities; one who would surely require round-the-clock specialist care; most probably within an institution – with a team of Swedish neurological experts (who would “tsk-tsk” (in Swedish) in my general direction, whispering to one another “this would never have happened if she hadn’t eaten the cheese”).
From this point, having children – I have heard described beautifully – is “like having your heart walking around outside your body”.
From a place of intense love and a primal instinct to protect, also comes a tsunami of catastrophising thoughts. You think your headache is an undiagnosed brain tumor (refer Arnie, earlier). You hear a cough from your child’s bedroom in the middle of the night and curse your GP for not picking up the resurgence of Bubonic Plague.
Why am I saying all this?
I think the more we pretend that everything is okay the more we damage one another.
Chicken Little may have been deemed a crackpot after the acorn incident, but at least the chick voiced its fears aloud!
By talking about our fears and anxieties THEY – not us – will break down. Sometimes giving your voice to the crazies – the monkeys – in your head can make them seem small and silly. Meditation gives me a small moment to look at them, sit with them, smile at them and put them aside.
Leaving them left un-checked inside can wreak havoc on you mentally, spiritually and physically. Believe me, I know.
Until we meet again,
Om & Out.
This article has been contributed by Cool, Calm & Collected’s student, writer & eternal work-in-progress, Anita Quigley Atherton.
 Walt Disney image – ‘Chicken Little’