The Catastrophizing and Anxiety Connection
When you catastrophize (AKA awfulize), you dwell on a worse-than-worst-case scenario and get overwhelmed by a growing mushroom cloud of painful emotion.
That can ramp up your anxiety even though what you are anxious about isn't really happening. It can stress you out, shut down your ability to think clearly, and immobilize you.
Reality or Fantasy?
Emotions are stimulated by both reality and fantasy.
We respond to a scary movie with fear even though we’re outsiders looking at what we know isn’t a real occurrence. People can break out in a sweat just thinking about giving a speech. You may become anxious imagining you are sick, whether or not it is the truth of the matter.
The more vivid a picture or thought you create, the more real it will feel.
We have the same emotional response to something that we vividly imagine as to something that is really happening.
This idea that we have the same emotional response to something we vividly imagine as to something that is really happening was brought home to me in a very profound way one afternoon.
I was watched a TV show. I have no idea what stimulated the thoughts I’m going to describe. Nothing was happening at that time in my life that would have warranted them and nothing from the show or commercials seemed to have been relevant to the thoughts that invaded my mind.
I got this vivid thought that I had gotten a phone call that my adult son had died. (I am not at all prone to these types of thoughts, so I’m still befuddled as to why the thought popped up.) My mind kept going with this idea to the point where I imagined leaving my house, walking over to my neighbor’s, and knocking on her door asking for help.
Suddenly, I realized that tears were coming down my face. That jolted me into reality. I said to myself “Woah! This isn’t real! Stop!” and snapped out of it.
Psychologist Albert Ellis called this "catastrophizing" or “awfulizing.”
What is catastrophizing or awfulizing?
Catastrophizing or awfulizing is dwelling on an exaggerated worse-than-worst-case scenario.
It is one of many Cognitive Distortions that can get you in trouble. (Cognitive Distortions are thought patterns that distort reality.)
I was catastrophizing when I imagined my son had died.
Catastrophizing and Anxiety
Anxiety can make your mind go around in circles.
Anxious people tend to not only imagine catastrophized scenarios; they also tend to replay them over and over. The anxiety can grow and grow as the scary thoughts replay over and over.
If you think about something over and over, you will have the same emotional response as if it is happening over and over. Fear can grow bigger and bigger as you imagine awful possibilities. You can blow something up in your mind to catastrophic proportions creating a fear mushroom cloud.
Losing a job because your company downsized is scary. Vividly imagining never working again is catastrophizing.
When you catastrophize, you vividly imagine devastation rather than pulling yourself back to a more realistic picture and formulating how to cope with a realistic possibility.
Anyone may have moments when they fear the worst, but getting stuck in that position can result in chronic stress and/or a fear-drenched inability to act.
It can also harm relationships. If you vividly imagine your partner doing an imaginary awful thing over and over, it will feel like your partner is awful—even if he or she has not done the thing you are imagining at all! Your anger can then reach the same level as it would if they really did that awful thing over and over.
Be careful what you say to yourself—especially what you say over and over again. You will believe it. And every time you think it, that belief will become more and more entrenched.
If you have a tendency to catastrophize, it is important to catch yourself doing it and stop those thoughts.
For more on how to stop catastrophizing, Click to read about "Thought Stopping or Thought Blocking Techniques" in another post.
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- Ann Silvers