I’ll admit it. I’m a catastrophisor. You know, that person who takes a small, seemingly innocuous thing, and ramps up the significance to catastrophic proportions. It’s the person who, at the first little bit of turbulence, has the whole plane crashing flash through their mind and is whole bodily convinced they are about to die in a fiery heap of metal.
For me, though, I catastrophise most specifically about my health. It’s a weird and uncomfortable practice and I know I am not the only person in the world who does this. (Right? There are more of us, aren’t there?) While there may be many people who catastrohise, it feels all consuming when it is happening to me. And like anything that has a large degree of irrationality behind it, it is hard to reason with someone in the throws of believing the worst case scenario is imminent or just around the corner. Along with the catastrophising is a high level of anxiety. This is something new I am coming to terms with. Anxiety and catastrophising go hand in hand. I have always been someone who dismisses my anxiety. So much so that I would disagree with anyone who suggests I might be anxious or have anxiety. How dare they? In reality, though, I wouldn’t be catastrophising if I wasn’t anxious. You can be anxious without being a catastrophisor but I’m pretty sure catastrophising comes from a certain level or degree of anxiety.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been a health catastrophisor but I think it began a few years ago when I started thinking about each day and how it could be my last because there are no guarantees and shit happens and life can change in the blink of an eye.
I am all too aware the tenuousness of life and I keep that in my mind because I feel like it makes me appreciate everything more, while also reminding me that a lot of stuff just doesn’t matter. The clutter and drama clear away faster. I’m less inclined to care about gossip and more interested to get straight into what matters. I want to make and build connections on solid foundations. I don’t want to put my precious time or energy into smoke and mirrors.
There are benefits to living in this way. But I wonder if a detriment is my propensity to catastrophise. If I get a pain or ache somewhere, I almost immediately start planning my funeral and who I want to make a point to say goodbye to. Headache? Must be a brain tumour. Achey knee? Bone cancer. Sore foot? It will probably have to be amputated and I just don’t know if I would survive that surgery. It’s honestly an exhausting way to live. I can get myself worked up to a state of sorrow and tears just thinking about how much I would miss life. And don’t get me started on not having my dogs in my soon-to-be afterlife scenario. I will myself to live another day just so I can hang out with them some more. This is a common self-soothing tool I use.
Something I started doing in the new year of 2021 is keeping a diary. Each morning and evening I jot down a couple of sentences. I keep track of how I’m feeling in my body and how my head space and mental health are feeling to me that day. I have found this to be a valuable tool in helping me keep perspective on my catastrophising.
One of the aspects of catastrophising, for me, is that it feeds on itself. If I have a headache (ie brain tumour) I have had it forever and I likely only have weeks to live. Keeping a diary allows me to go back and check that for accuracy. When I see that last week I didn’t have a headache, nor 3 days ago, but it only started yesterday and could possibly be associated with a decreased intake of water or I’ve been reading too much or on the computer more than usual (or insert a myriad of reasons here), I can nip the catastrophising in the bud. It’s a good tool for me to gauge how I really am going.
When we’re in pain, or something is wrong, it is all we can think about. When we are feeling fine we often forget we’ve been in pain. It’s a marvel of our human experience that we are able to be so present and so absent at the same time.
I’ve recently binge listened to all the available episodes of Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown podcast. She has her quirky way of breaking down mental health and social stigma around aspects which can often make us feel uncomfortable or shameful. I haven’t talked about my penchant for catastrophising because it just seems weird and actually kind of a downer. I don’t have shame around it but I still kind of keep it on the down low. After listening to Breakdown, though, I realised I’m most likely not alone in the ‘worst case scenario/catastrophe is right around the corner’ mindset. And I felt maybe sharing my thoughts and experience of it would help others to realise their own thoughts and beliefs were valid. We often don’t talk about things because we think we are the only ones going through whatever. It can feel lonely and isolating. It gives me a bit of comfort knowing I am probably not alone in catastrophising and if we can talk about the things that take up our brain space it may help us, and those around us, to feel better and more comfortable in their own skin and bodies. It also reminds us that we all have quirks - just not necessarily the exact same ones. It’s what makes each of us uniquely us.
I am happy to say that my catastrophising has lessened to the degree that I’m not currently doing it. I’m no longer planning my funeral and final farewells every time my body doesn’t feel ‘right’. I haven’t forgotten about it but I am really relieved to not have it informing my well-being everyday. I know it’s part of what makes me me, but while it’s not so present in my life I am going to enjoy its absence. And I am definitely not going to catastrophise about it returning.