NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Are You Catastrophizing?

In my last article, I focused on Overcoming Your Fear of Making Mistakes which is a common problem for many people. Related to fear of making mistakes is the habit of catastrophizing.

Are You Catastrophizing?

Habitual Catastrophizing:
Why do I call catastrophizing a habit? Because it's usually an automatic negative way of thinking that becomes habitual over time. Many people who engage in catastrophizing don't even realize that this is what they're doing. It becomes such an automatic way of thinking that they tend to see most situations as being dire and dangerous, and they approach many new situations with fear.

What is "Catastrophizing"?
Simply, catastrophizing is when a person expects the worst in most situations. His or her fears are usually highly exaggerated without sufficient evidence for this type of fear. It's a distortion in the way a person thinks.

People who engage in catastrophizing usually fear making mistakes. Their exaggerated fear that something dire will occur if they make a mistake leads them to expect the worst in most situations. They might engage in endless "what if's" that keep them stuck in their particular situation, too afraid to go back but equally afraid to move forward.

When we think about the old story about Chicken Little running around saying, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" this is an example of catastrophizing.

Often, people who engage in catastrophizing can get other people very anxious as they trigger their vulnerabilities and insecurities.

The following fictionalized scenario is an example of catastrophizing, and how an individual can overcome this habitual form of negative thinking:

Most people who knew Joanne knew that she tended to see the worst possible scenario in just about every situation that she encountered. For Joanne, decision making was fraught with fear and anxiety about all the possible things that could go wrong. Whether she was trying to make a career decision or go on a trip, she was sure that something awful was going to happen.

Joanne's fears kept her ruminating about all the "what if's" in any given situation: What if the boss in the new job turned out to be difficult to work for? What if the plane that she was on had a malfunction and crashed? What if the house that she and her husband were considering buying turned out to have a lot of problems? What if..what if...what if...

One day, Joanne's husband, Ken, told her that she was driving him crazy with all of her exaggerated fears, "You see everything as a potential catastrophe." They had been talking about having children, but Ken told her that he didn't want to raise children in a household where they were constantly badgered about everything that could possibly go wrong. He told Joanne that, for her own sake, for his sake, and the sake of their future children, she needed to get psychological help.

At first, Joanne was offended that Ken told her to get psychological help. She felt that her fears were legitimate and not at all distorted. But when she talked to her sister and her best friend and they both agreed wholeheartedly with Ken, Joanne found his suggestion hard to ignore. Even though she didn't think that she had a problem, she thought she would, at least, go for a consultation with a psychotherapist.

No sooner did Joanne decide to find a psychotherapist than she began to worry excessively about the cost. Even though she and Ken had an upper middle class standard of living and they were in stable jobs, she worried that spending money on psychotherapy would drain their savings. Ken tried to reassure her that she had nothing to worry about, but she continued to engage in "what if's"--until, finally, Ken pointed out to Joanne that this was yet another example of her catastrophizing.

Reluctantly, Joanne began psychotherapy. She began therapy by telling the psychotherapist that she didn't think she needed to be there, and she was coming to prove it to her husband. But almost immediately, Joanne began to engage in her habitual and exaggerated negative way of thinking in her first session. When her therapist pointed this out to Joanne, she began to consider that there might be a kernel of truth to what her husband, sister and best friend were telling her.

Exploring her habitual ways of thinking was very uncomfortable for Joanne. She grew up in a family where both her mother and father had strong fears, so it seemed "normal" to her to engage in this type of thinking.

But when she was able to look at her parents' negative and distorted ways of thinking, it was much easier for her to see the problem than when she looked at her own way of thinking. She began to remember times when she was growing up that were spoiled for her because her parents approached most things like they were potential catastrophes. This made her feel very sad, and she thought back to her husband's words when he told her that he didn't want to raise children in an atmosphere of exaggerated fears and negative thinking.

As Joanne remembered those times when she looked forward to going to a party or seeing friends and her parents spoiled those times for her by not allowing her to go ("What if you get into a car accident?"), Joanne began to see how her way of thinking was just like her parents. She told her therapist, "I never wanted to be like that, and now, look at me."

With her psychotherapist's help, Joanne began to question herself whenever she began to worry excessively about ordinary things. She asked herself if there was any rational evidence that these awful things that she was projecting were likely to happen. Not if they could ever happen--but what was the likelihood of their happening? After a while, she had to admit that most of her fears were unfounded.

Over time, after she managed to get her thoughts and emotions under control, she also began to work with her therapist on the underlying issues that caused her to engage in so much catastrophizing. As she worked through these issues, she discovered that she hardly worried excessively any more. When her husband pointed out to Joanne that she was so much easier to be around now, they rekindled their relationship and it became much more passionate than it had ever been before.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're catastrophizing, you're not alone.

There are many people who engage in this form of distorted and irrational thinking. And there are many people who have been helped in psychotherapy to overcome this problem.

Rather than agonizing about what could go wrong and causing a lot of stress for yourself and those around you, you owe it to yourself to learn to stop catastrophizing.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my article:  Overcoming Your Fear of Making Mistakes

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