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Calm • Anxiety

How and Why We Catastrophise

The idea of a catastrophiser has an almost comedic ring to it. We picture someone sweet-but-silly running around feeling like the sky will cave in — when obviously it won’t, because skies just don’t. ‘There they go again,’ we might say, as the catastrophiser once more insists that ‘this is the end!’ — while in fact, there’s a just a small delay with the plane, the keys have been mislaid, or it’s a tickly cough.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

But from close up, there is nothing remotely benign or funny about being the subject of catastrophic thinking. A mind prey to this disease can never picture any solid steps between the present and the very worst scenarios — only and always just a direct line. If an ex partner is unhappy with them, the catastrophiser won’t imagine that this is only one mood of theirs, that there will be many chances to discuss the upset, that this former lover is broadly benign and understanding — and that the chances of one person deliberately setting out to ruin another’s life are not at all high. Instead, the most dire conclusion is immediate: the ex will be vengeful, furious and bent on unending torture. As on so many other occasions (with the disgruntled employee or the frustrated neighbour, the irate customer or the dispute with an old university friend), the catastrophiser will irresistibly reach for the most awful and pitiless story. It will be impossible to sleep, they will lose their appetite, they won’t have any energy to exercise or see friends, their whole future will be called into question, they may picture themselves living in a hut outside of society, shunned and mocked. They might look for ways to kill themselves. There is simply no such thing as ‘small’ issue.

Positive ScenarioSub-Optimal ScenarioCatastrophic Scenario
The letter is just lateThe letter has been lostThe person writing the letter has decided they hate me
I’ll be let off with a cautionI’ll have to pay a fineI’m definitely going to prison. For five years at least
I’ll do well in the examI’ll scrape a pass in the examI’m going to fail, lose my place on the course, and remain a total failure for the rest of my life.

The catastrophiser may, across most of their lives, have attained minimal insight into their way of thinking, let alone compassion for it. It seems to be just the way things are. People might tease them for being rather too ‘heavy’; the unfortunate catastrophiser might be on the receiving end of a great many more or less irate recommendations to ‘stop worrying.’ 

What this neglects is that catastrophic thinking is a clinical condition — and that it tends to have a history. It is almost always a symptom of having encountered a real full blown catastrophe somewhere before. This may not have been an overt incident of the kind that is logged by family and friends and that therefore clearly fits into a person’s understanding of themselves (for example, that they were involved in a plane crash at the age of five or that a war rocked their country when they were two). It may not be an encounter with a catastrophic event that we are talking about so much as familiarity with catastrophic feelings — which are generally much easier to lose sight of or to be actively disguised by those who caused them for us. 

We can strongly surmise: catastrophisers have made a deduction about what will happen on the basis of what has — at some point — already happened. They might, as a toddler, have been on the receiving end of volcanic rage of a parent. The parent might not actually have excommunicated them and ordered their execution,  but that is certainly what it felt like — in that kitchen, when the crockery was smashed and the screaming didn’t let up for a good twenty minutes. Similarly, they might not actually have been killed, but there may have been a ‘death’ of sorts when another child was born and they were wholly ignored, becoming the black sheep who no longer received the slightest sign of tenderness or praise.

There is a lot of our history bound up in what we catastrophise about, for there are many variations and individual preferences possible. There are public opinion catastrophisers who are utterly calm about health matters, or relationship catastrophisers who are totally at ease with money. A question to ask ourselves is always: what bit of my past is the catastrophic scenario I fear telling me about? What does the awful thing I dread hint to me about the awful thing I have previously gone through?

We begin to get a handle on our catastrophic imaginations not by being told to be calm or learning about the theories of the Ancient Stoics,  but when we can develop the courage to explore what once went very wrong and then learn to more accurately distinguish then from now.

We develop too when we see that what catastrophising really means is ‘thinking like a child.’ And more accurately, thinking like the child we once were. It is entirely normal and very forgiveable for a child to assess reality in stark and dramatic terms. They have no resources, they lack options, they can’t work out what to do. So it’s the extremities of situations that naturally attract them. They will have to kill themselves. There can be no calm resolution. Nothing good will ever show up again. Understanding the debt that our thinking owes to the past should alert us to the idea that we almost certainly aren’t facing a catastrophe; we are thinking like a child.

And in turn, we begin to soothe ourselves by remembering that we are no longer the children we once were. We are a lot stronger and more resilient than our fertile, still arrested and youthful minds imagine. We have grown many faculties since we were a toddler and faced a litany of awful things. We have allies, we can call professionals, we have access to law courts and hospitals. Something requires our concern; but — whatever our agitated minds so often like to tell us — it lies in the past, not the future.

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