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The Art Of Catastrophising

Seems some of us Psychologists do what we tell our clients NOT to do.

And when I say, some of us Psychologists, I mean me.

This week I took part in the act of catastrophising. I did a darn good job at it too. I managed to go from noticing one health symptom to diagnosing myself with a chronic disease within minutes (thanks Google). I also managed to lie awake that night thinking of how I was going to have to quit work and how I was going to manage the finances now that I had this condition.

Luckily my little episode didn’t last long, and I did notice that I was being a bit of a ‘catastrophiser’ the whole time. After realizing what I was doing, this enabled me to then…… stop it. I was then able to start being a bit more realistic about what was happening.

Catastrophising is known as a cognitive distortion. Meaning, it is an exaggeration of our thought processes. What we start thinking is not necessarily true and we stretch our imagination somewhat to skew reality. The thing about catastrophising is that we skew our thoughts to the negative end of the scale, rather than the positive.

Why do we do that?

Well our brain’s role is to protect us from fearful things that could harm us psychologically and physically. So if we can predict something bad happening, we can prepare for it and we are more likely to survive. That is why we worry, and prepare for the worst. We don’t need to prepare for awesome and wonderful things to happen to us, as this is not threatening our survival. We don’t worry about good stuff.

Catastrophising increases our stress response, which changes our body’s physiological reaction to ‘fight or flight’ (increased heart rate, shortness of breath, etc.). Which is great if you are in the wild, and your body is automatically preparing you to get out of danger. But not so good if you are at home, work or trying to sleep and worries are taking over you.

So if you are a worrier, and you are always preparing for the worst-case scenarios, your body is going to be getting a hammering as well.

Case in point…. (me this week), noticing symptom, increase stress response, go to computer to “research symptoms”, increase stress response, self diagnosis, increase stress response. This mental process then made the actual symptom worse.

An alternative method (and the one I kicked off after the catastrophising episode) that you might find more useful is to notice the worry, then have a think about what type of worry it is. Is it actually a current problem that you can act on or do something about? Or is it a “What if?” problem? Are you are worrying about the possibility that something bad could happen?

If it is a current problem, then start problem solving it. That means you do something useful and constructive about it (e.g. make a booking to see a doctor).

If it is a “What if?”, then you need to tell yourself that is it pointless rumination that has no benefits to you whether you think about it or not. Worrying is not going to change it for the better.

Even as a write this, I still have not sorted out my health issue, but I am certainly more at peace about it. Yes, it could be serious, but I can’t do much about it until my tests come back, and if I worry about it, then I will turn that stress response on even more, which will make it worse.

So I am just keeping calm until then. In a calmer state, my body also kicks into gear the “healing response” which allows my body to repair what is going on in the meantime.

Make sense?

Us Psychologists are not big into self disclosure, but I thought this might be useful to you.

If I have done it, I definitely know that you have probably done it too. So hopefully this helps you out the next time you start catastrophising yourself!

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