Catastrophizing and the daily end of the world
Today marked the end of my 7-day free trial at a local gym I have been meaning to join. Gyms have always deterred me because I feel awkward exercising around people who are much more athletic than I am. I finally worked up the courage to try one, and I had been enjoying it all week. So naturally, as my free trial was over, I walked in the door this morning and declared that I was going to officially get a membership. I went through all the paperwork, only to realize that the gym does not offer memberships on a month-by-month basis, but rather on a yearly basis. Realizing that I am only going to be staying with my parents for another two months, I was forced to leave the gym without signing up.
Doesn’t sound so bad, right? I bet you’re wondering why I’m even telling you this story. Unfortunately for me, my tendency to catastrophize turned this neutral situation into a spiral of emotions. I think I’m getting a little ahead of myself here – let’s back it up.
One of the hallmarks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT, aka the kind of therapy that will most likely be prescribed to you) is the idea of cognitive distortions – exaggerated and maladaptive ways of thinking that perpetuate false beliefs about the self and cause unwanted emotions. Whereas cognitive biases are both helpful and harmful at times, cognitive distortions are always bad. One prominent example of a cognitive distortion is catastrophizing, where a regular situation gets blown out of proportions and becomes the end of the world. You may catastrophize about present events (“I missed that light – now I’m going to be late for work and get fired!”) or future events (“If I choke up while presenting, everyone will think I’m a freak and no one will like me!”). Catastrophizing the past and present is a sign of depression, while catastrophizing the future is a sign of anxiety (although it’s not always a clear distinction).
Now back to my gym situation. When I realized I’d made a mistake by failing to ask the policies of the gym, I immediately felt overwhelmingly embarrassed. I had to pick up my things and walk out – and then the catastrophizing began. “Everyone will notice me leaving and will realize why I had to leave. Because I’m stupid and didn’t read up on gym policies before trying to get a membership. Now everyone in that gym will think I’m the most idiotic person alive because I couldn’t even sign up for a gym membership properly. Maybe this is why I didn’t do well in human genetics last semester – because I’m stupid. I’ll never be able to make it back to college; I’m bound to just fail out as soon as I go back anyway. I’ll never get fit like I wanted to, and I’ll never get any smarter, and I’ll just sit in my room for the rest of my life eating Doritos and getting fat while everyone around lives a happy life.” …Phew. That was a lot of distorted thinking.
We all catastrophize. Every day seems like the end of the world for some reason or another. But when catastrophizing brings you to the brink of mental illness, it becomes a real problem. It’s very difficult to lift yourself out of catastrophic thinking when you’ve become accustomed to it over the years. Nevertheless, there are ways you can tackle the issue. Here’s what I’ve learned to do:
- Notice when you’re catastrophizing. The obvious first step.
- Break out the journal. In order to overcome your catastrophic thinking, you have to challenge it. It’s hard to do this in the moment, so write down all the details of the situation that is causing you to catastrophize. It’s important to stay as objective as possible here.
- Record your catastrophic thoughts on a separate page. This will help you later.
- Once you’re calm, go back and compare notes. Try to look for discrepancies between your thoughts and the actual situation. If you scored below average on an exam, is that really proof that you’re unintelligent? Or could it have been more a product of your lack of studying, the structure of the exam, your interest in the material, or your state of mind in taking the exam?
Only in challenging your cognitive distortion with rational thinking will you learn to overcome it. It certainly takes time – you’ve probably had decades of practice with this sort of thinking. Sometimes it may be hard to accept that your thoughts are not fact. I still find it hard to accept that a grade below what I’d hoped for is not always reflective of my (un)intelligence. I find it hard to accept that people may still like me despite the fact that I’m not as articulate as I’d like or not as extroverted as I could be. With time, you will begin to accept these things. You are a great person – millions of people can tell you that, but you have to learn it yourself.
What do you catastrophize? I would love to here your take on the concept of cognitive distortions. Are there any other ways you’ve been able to cope?