CATASTROPHISING: The unconscious habit
Catastrophising is an inordinate and undesirable fear felt in the present moment about how an event, incident, encounter, engagement or experience will negatively pan out in the future. It is a firm belief aided by irrationality that life will turn out to be far worse than what it is today. It evolved from the word catastrophe which is an extremely large-scale disaster and the verb catastrophising is a phenomenon that occurs in our mind unconsciously.
It is a heir apparent of negative visualization and a resultant of formative conditioned behaviour or picked up fears along the way or due to discouragement, bullying, lack of validation, corporate hectoring, relationship implosions, sustained humiliation, subordination, risk averse posture and other non-adventure based childhood inculcation as well as imposed parental and societal restraints. Jumping to conclusions, making a mountain out of molehill, blowing things out of proportion, you are over-reacting are all idioms for catastrophising.
At work, apathy from the boss for 2 days is sufficient to stir the worst feelings of job insecurity. One starts calamitously reconstructing the entire sequence of events right from why boss is behaving in such a detached and phlegmatic way to perhaps nursing the thought that boss does not like you. One heck of a spin and traffic seems to be happening in the head. One applies all broad strokes of presuppositions, biases and hunches thereby unconsciously distorting reality. This is catastrophising and exaggerating the experience to perceive it as a threat. Without facts or concrete verification from the boss himself it is imprecise to assume the worst. It is generally observed that most of the desires in people’s lives have been met or acquired after some level of exertion and elbow grease including job, position, wealth, relationship, assets, sales etc. hence most people assume the world as a tough, onerous and unsafe place hence unable to wrench themselves free from a conditioned thought of fearing the worst in most scenarios in life. If the interest rates go up one immediately starts thinking about mortgage escalation, how to meet children’s expenses, life maintenance, future savings, old age etc. If lovers have a skirmish over something they end up distraught fearing the worst, if income tax percentage is marginally increased people are discomposed, if new top lateral recruitment is done in an organization incumbents are anxious. Just a trivial spark needs to happen in life and people with a strong dispositional stance to catastrophising succumb forthwith.
Human beings have a predilection for meaning creation and a tendency to append meaning to any situation, be it a strange noise or an unusual facial expression by fitting it into a familiar explanatory framework. Meaning creation is ubiquitous. When one is unable to find a coherent pattern, one feels annoyed and helpless hence even if the constructed meaning is incorrect one feels it is better than a state of ignorance.
In the movie ‘The Sixth Sense’, the boy Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment) sees dead people like regular people moving around him and is petrified and constantly distraught. Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis- child psychologist) is trying hard to understand his world and at one point vexes over his Dictaphone and says, “His pathology is more severe than initially assessed. Suffers from visual hallucinations, paranoia, some kind of school age schizophrenia. Medication, hospitalization may be required. I’m not helping him.” Later in his house, Dr Malcolm hears a very old audio recording in which one of his former patients, when left in an empty room with no one present, seem to hear some voices. Upon amplification of the recording, even Malcolm could hear the strange voices thereby providing him an insight to Cole’s case. Later he meets the boy in a church and the following dialogues ensue:
Dr Malcolm: What do these ghosts want when they talk to you? I want you to think about it Cole. I want you to think about it really carefully. What do you think they want?
Cole: Just help.
Dr. Malcolm: That’s right, that’s what I think too. They just want help even the scary ones. I think I know a way to make them go away.
Dr. Malcolm: Listen to them.
Cole: What if they don’t want help. What if they are angry and just want to hurt somebody?
Dr. Malcolm: I don’t think that’s the way it works.
Cole: How do you know for sure?
Dr. Malcolm: I don’t.
Dr Malcolm’s explanations and suggestions were enough to heal the boy. So far Cole was struggling to understand his experiences and remained petrified but now he has been presented with an explanation (even if it may be erroneous), and this was restorative enough. A meaning attached to an inexplicable experience in the boy’s life alters his perception. Catastrophising is in essence, providing an explanatory framework to an experience and attachment of a meaning and this seems to be okay for people even though the meaning is a deeply negative one which is seeing the situation worse than it is. It seems to be better than no meaning at all as not attaching any meaning seems to cause immense anxiety. The calamity hasn’t occurred yet but one starts accentuating the negative consequences. What is needed however is to heighten one’s awareness to this behaviour and start by training one’s mind to associate a positive meaning attachment to the experience i.e. seeing the situation better than it is or at least a neutral meaning which is seeing the situation as it is. Mark Twain said, “ Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” The maxim is structured well and highlights the importance of assimilating the facts first as against a proclivity to catastrophise. Mark Twain has also said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
CONSEQUENCES OF CATASTROPHISING:
With passage of time, catastrophising evolves into a person’s second nature and he/she begins to live with it without being aware of its presence. Unaddressed catastrophising leads to dread and trepidation affecting one’s information processing faculties and chronic catastrohising can lead to debilitation in psychopathological states inducing severe anxiety, depression and cognitive distortions. Some of the consequences of catastrophising are it:
- Destroys state, well-being and induces anxiety.
- Increases stress levels affecting one’s disposition.
- Paralyses decision-making thereby asphyxiating action orientation.
- Invokes insomnia due to its stress triggering properties.
- In extreme conditions it could trigger a heart condition and recurrent catastrophising could perhaps even become fatal.
HOW TO REMEDY THIS THINKING TRAP:
- By becoming conscious of this happening.
- Linguistically re-scripting how an event is interpreted (one can say I’m sunk or one can rescript the same situation as ‘I am momentarily discomforted, but I will come out of this unscathed’). What does this re-scripting accomplish, does it alter reality? No but it certainly preserves one’s state of mind and induces one to take action as against believing in the ‘sunk’ construct that makes him/ her languish and wallow in self-pity.
- Rectifying the tenets of interpretation and cognitive reconstruction is a key.
WHO EXPLOITS THE CATASTROPHISING TRAIT:
Though catastrophising is bad and affects one’s state, there seems to be a segment of the society who actually exploits this thinking anomaly. The whole insurance business (car, house, health, contents, life, business, care) is based upon catastrophising. The agents come to you and speak to you about how dismal the future could be if you lost your job or in the case of an accident or death how bleak the scenario will be for the family. Their success lies in making you visualize the catastrophe in future in gory details and providing a rescue plan by virtue of an insurance premium. They receive commission for the inventiveness with which they choreograph the catastrophe in your head and make you sign up. Who else does it, lawyers! . The way they construct the argument to the witness in the stand and present a bleak picture to him/her with the threat that if they don’t produce the truth how perilous it will become for them. Dental products whilst they advertise on TV use this too, they speak about decaying gums and eventual fall out of teeth and paint a gloomy picture and then offer a rescue with their product offering. Fear of pain and eventual gloom coerce you to take action and get your buying instincts charged.
Catastrophising is one of the biggest work related disabilities and impairs receptivity of people in the office. Sales people who accost rejection daily are prone to it, managers in charge of crucial projects catastrophise about the milestone miss, CEO’s catastrophise about future earning potential of the firm, competition, innovative threats obliterating their market leader position and so on, students catastrophise about the outcome of their exams, stock investors catastrophise about the market indices. There are no universal statistics to corroborate but it would be fair to express that there isn’t anyone who hasn’t catastrophised in his/her life. Catastrophising is a thinking trap and is a misrepresentation of an experience through negative amplification and intensified future threat perception. Catastrophising happens due to unhelpful thinking patterns i.e. attaching a negative meaning to a discrete piece of incident or data and building an enfeebling story around it. Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) are few of the available interventions to mitigate this behaviour as it fundamentally delineates meaning making and the way people interpret life.