Recently, I told my therapist about what I do when I fly which, up until that point, I considered sort of pathological: I visualize and over-prepare for the worst-case scenario—a crash. I think about the emergency exits, how I’ll react should turbulence hit, I even read into the tone of the pilot’s voice. I hold my anxiety close by reciting it over and over in my head to the point that, when we land safely, I’m flooded with relief to the point that it feels like a rush.
My therapist gave me a knowing look before kindly saying that my behavior is actually quite common (he does it, too) and there’s a name for it: Catastrophizing.
What is catastrophizing? It’s basically the act of assuming the worst will happen, in an overly exaggerated sense, as a way of coping with fear and controlling negative thoughts. But, as any person who has hyperventilated on a plane knows, those thoughts can easily spin out of control in relation to actual reality.
What are other examples? Say your boss seems a little peeved with you. Your head swims with worst case scenario thinking, and you conclude you’ll be fired, lose your income and never get a job again. Or maybe you’re more like my colleague who went on vacation recently and spent half her time on the beach visualizing her entire family getting COVID-19, a catastrophic perspective that blew her reality out of proportion. She only relaxed when they got their negative tests back 24 hours before their flight home.
Here’s why it’s no good. While catastrophizing can help you feel like you’re controlling your anxiety, it actually heightens it. A lot of times, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill and—per my therapist—experiencing the worst-case scenario (and the emotional toll it takes) just by playing it through.
This is how you stop it. Notice the moments you’re doing it, he explains. Then, do what you can to replace that way of thinking with more rational facts that keep you grounded. For flying, I could think about the fact that plane crashes are exceptionally rare and the pilot is experienced and in control. My colleague might focus on the precautions she’s taken to prevent COVID, as well as all the (not-so-bad!) ways she’d cope were the “worst” to happen: She’d notify work and the kids’ schools, they’d extend their stay, etc.
Bottom line: Don’t borrow future trouble. Easier said than done, of course, but I’m trying to remember to prioritize the present, take a deep breath and put space between myself and those hypothetical future problems. And if you need help talking about things, you can always dial a therapist. I did.