"My whole life I've been playing the 'what if' game with myself, and spoiler alert - I never win it"
Have you ever innocently scrolled through social media, minding your own business, only to be unexpectedly met with a hard case of reality. You’ll see a Tweet or comment sympathising with or making fun of a certain type of person, only that ‘certain type of person’ being described fits so perfectly with your personality that the word ‘seen’ doesn’t even begin to cover how you feel. That’s exactly what happened to me when I learned that my ‘what if’ mentality was actually a cognitive distortion. “Shout out to all my people who assume the worst case scenario in all situations with the aim of protecting themselves in the weirdest way possible but actually only make their lives hell” the tweet read. I thought this was something only I did, and what’s more than that I had no idea that it was even an actual ‘thing’. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m confronted by it again.
The main character in a book I’m reading is described as a ‘catastrophist’ by her therapist. She jumps to the worst possible outcome after any minor inconvenience, allowing the anxiety she feels inside to take over any logical thinking, and it’s there I learn that this thing that I do, actually has a name.
Blind to the chaos that was going on inside my own mind, a lightbulb finally switches on within me. My whole life I’ve been playing the ‘what if’ game with myself, and spoiler alert – I never win it. As a child I worried ‘What if I get kidnapped on my way to my friends house’, as a teenager I catastrophised, ‘What if I don’t get enough points in my Leaving Cert to get into the college I want’, and as an adult living through a pandemic I worry ‘What if I lose one of the people I love the most’. Apocalyptic visions flicker before me in the most mundane of situations, and for those of you who play the what if game too, you’ll know too that it’s a lose-lose sport.
One bad thought triggers another bad thought and before you know it you’re on a non-stop journey to stressville. But why do I do this? And more importantly, how can I manage it?
To answer some of the questions I have, I spoke with Daisy Horan, a psychotherapist with Yes Counselling. “Catastrophising is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion after a minor setback. This is when your brain goes into an active anxiety spiral that leads you down a long, scary rabbit hole to the worst-case scenario.” Daisy says. Explaining that our minds exaggerate our fears about what might happen, Daisy explains that we often justify these absurd thoughts as being completely rational, which in turn only leads to us feeling bad within ourselves. “When you catastrophize, you expect disaster to strike, no matter what: ‘We are going to be homeless’, ‘The kids’ lives will be ruined. This cognitive distortion is simply a way that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.”
But I’m not alone in thinking this way, Saabirah, who, like me, is the eldest child in her family finds herself internalising her ‘protective big sister’ role, and catastraphises about her younger brother’s safety, at the expense of her mental health “When my brothers go to the shop or they are just out and about with their friends the thought may cross my mind ‘he’s not back yet’ or ‘I haven’t heard anything from him yet’, this then leads to ‘what if something happened, what if he was stopped, or mugged’. It can be a really distressing experience because you know it’s irritational and you don’t want to think of anything bad happening to the people you love but at the same time knowing the reality for young black boys, it’s sometimes difficult to feel safe in my mind about them being out and about.”
Finding the root cause of your distress can be difficult but Saabirah believes that like many others, her anxious tendencies mixed with her semi-strict upbringing has caused her to think this way, “From a young age I was always thinking about acting a certain way or doing certain things to protect myself from harm. Anxiety manifests in different ways and I believe catastrophising is one of the ways my anxiety plays out in my life.”
Psychotherapist Daisy explains that the root causes of catastrophising are both vast and complicated. It may be a coping mechanism, picked up from family members or important people in our lives, or a pre-existing mental health challenge could trigger off catasptophic thinking, with the fearful thinking simply making anxiety worse, “Anxiety can be triggered by anything that is perceived as potentially dangerous or threatening such as the possibility of making a mistake, being rejected, missing a deadline, or not doing well on a test. The danger doesn’t have to be real, because simply thinking that it might occur sometime in future produces anxiety,” Daisy explains.
Having something that you deem to be valuable in your life can set off catastrophic thinking too, with the fear of losing that thing surpassing logical thinking, “When something is particularly significant to a person, the concept of loss or difficulty can be harder to deal with. Relationships and situations that a person holds in high value can therefore result in a tendency to catastrophize.”
For Alice, past trauma has triggered off a lifetime of catastrophising, after becoming ill as a child and losing people extremely close to her growing up, she now immediate assumes the worst when she receives a phone call, “Phone calls or missing things on my phone in general can trigger off my catastrophising.” Alice says. “If it’s in a different room charging I’ll be afraid someone is getting in touch to tell me something bad or that they were calling me because they needed me for something. If my mam, brother or friend calls me without a text first my heart will beat fast and I’ll get a strong anxious feeling in my stomach. I’ll start the call with ‘is everything okay?’”.
Alice believes that her catastrophic thinking is a subconscious defence mechanism, believing that if she’s prepared for the worst then the worst can’t hurt her so much, “I have gotten phone calls to tell me devastating news before, so now, I think maybe I feel that if I’m prepared for it, or think about it before it happens, I have more control over it.”
So, if your mind is likely to jump to the worst-case scenario, I wonder if it’s possible to unlearn the habit of a lifetime? And, if it is possible, how would you go about doing it? Daisy Horan tells me that although it isn’t easy, it is in fact possible to if not stop, at least minimise catastrophic thinking. The most important step in managing it is recognising that you are doing it, Daisy believes it’s important to call yourself out when you do it, as awareness lends itself to rationality. If you have paid close attention to your thoughts and are now aware that you’re inclined to think this way, Daisy recommends two things, practicing mindfulness and accepting uncertainty.
Mindfulness can be achieved in multiple ways, for some this could simply be getting enough sleep and exercising, for others it may be attending therapy or speaking about their fears and emotions out loud, “Mindfulness encompasses awareness and acceptance. Awareness is the knowledge and ability to focus attention on one’s inner process and experiences such as the experience of the present moment. While acceptance is the ability to observe and accept rather than judge or avoid those streams of thought.” For myself and so many others, catastrophsising is something that we’re still trying to navigate. While we know that we can’t stop this thinking overnight, we are prepared to spend a lifetime reminding ourselves that these mountains we see ahead of us are nothing but molehills.
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