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.