COLUMN — Stop catastrophizing

Published 3:26 pm Wednesday, November 11, 2020

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Are you a catastrophizer?

I am, sometimes. Catastrophizing, while a pretty word, is an act in which a person believes the worst possible outcome imaginable is definitely going to happen. A catastrophizer lets a concern snowball in their mind until it’s all-consuming and has become an exaggerated worry that isn’t likely, but feels certain.

That birthmark on your shoulder you’re not 100% sure you had last month? It’s probably cancer. Just leaving for a weekend getaway that’s supposed to be relaxing? You’ll spend the whole time fearing you left every appliance in the house on and it’s burning to the ground as you sip your piña colada. And that family member who isn’t back home yet despite saying they’d be there in 10 minutes? They’ve likely been in a serious car crash just a mile down the road.

While there’s a biological reason behind why humans can be worrywarts and even anxiety can sometimes have its uses, catastrophizing is pointless in that it paints a very unrealistic picture of something that is not likely to happen and that is also, for the most part, completely out of your hands.

What are some ways you can avoid catastrophizing, especially in a year when it seems very reasonable to worry?

Firstly, avoid exaggerating an idea until it’s an unrecognizable extravaganza of panic. A catastrophizer often thinks in this sort of pattern:

“Oh no, I can’t find my wallet after 30 seconds of looking. I must have dropped it when out grocery shopping. Some rando must have picked it up, taken all my cash and cards and is currently applying for a car loan as me. They’re going to ruin my credit, steal my identity and I’m going to have to live in a van down by the river.”

Is it impossible that someone has found your wallet and is planning on stealing your identity? No, not exactly. But is the more likely outcome that your wallet is in your car or your other pair of jeans, as it has been the last five times you lost it? Yes.

Exaggerating the likelihood of disaster can make you blind to the reality of the situation, just like getting panicked over identity theft can make you blind to the wallet that’s sitting on the coffee table.

Secondly, learn to soothe yourself (and others) by taking the “advice of a best friend” approach. If a friend came to you and expressed to you the same concerns you are currently experiencing as you spiral into panic, what would you tell them? It likely wouldn’t be, “Yes, after careful consideration I do think you’re going to be dead by Tuesday because your eyelid won’t stop twitching,” or, “Sure, you’ll probably have to drop out of college because you got a “C” on the last exam.” A friend would tell you that you need more sleep and that there’s plenty of time for extra credit.

And if you find yourself too embarrassed about the ridiculousness of your worries to actually ask a friend if your concerns are valid, there’s your answer right there.

I can’t always stop my anxious thoughts when something has me truly worried, but I can tell myself that the wallet is on the coffee table, the “birthmark” is actually a piece of dirt, someone would have called me by now if my house had burned down and in two more minutes my brother will be at the door, safe and sound, after stopping to pick up dinner.

Alexa Massey is a staff reporter for The Kenbridge-Victoria Dispatch and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. Her email address is