Catastrophising: How you make a mountain out of a molehill!

The emotional mastery process involves scanning your surroundings, perceiving an event, experiencing an emotional reaction elicited by your perception, validating the emotion, “S.T.O.P.”ing the reaction, assessing the emotion and your perception, and choosing a response.

When you master your emotions, you are in touch with your feelings and you are using them as tools to improve your life and your relationships.

This is the way you want your life to go.

But, sometimes, it all goes south!

Catastrophising: you have either done it yourself or witnessed it taking place in others.

  • Something “bad” happens to you.  I put the word “bad” in quotes because it is a relative term which hinges on how you see and define the situation in which you find yourself.
  • This bad thing happens and you go into a downward spiral and act “as-if” your very life is ending.  Your friends look at you and say: “Whoa, it wasn’t that  bad!”

What might be going on that could explain this process?

Two examples…

Example #1: A “D” in organic chemistry.

When I was in college, a guy went to the top of the chemistry building and jumped off.

He survived the fall.

When asked why he did it, he noted that he got a “D” in organic chemistry and his life was over.

Huh? You say. How could a bad grade lead to attempted suicide? What is the connection?

Well, here was his (very egocentric) line of reasoning…

  • To him, the D meant he would not get into medical school.
  • If he couldn’t get into med school, he would never be a doctor.
  • If he could not be a doctor, he would not be able to support a family.
  • If he could not support a family, he would be a complete failure.
  • If he was going to end up a complete failure, he might as well kill himself as life would not be worth living.
  • If he might as well kill himself, why wait?

Is this logical?

Yes!

Is it true?

Maybe!

Is it plausible?

Not necessarily.

While it is one way to look at his situation, this line of reasoning is both exclusionary and maladaptive.

This individual was catastrophising.

Example #2: A teenage girl is harassed on social media (cyberbullying) and tries to take her own life.

Again, at first glance, this behavior seems both extreme and illogical.

It is extreme.  It is not illogical.

Her reasoning goes something like this.

  • All the negative comments on Facebook (and other social media sites) are ruing my reputation.
  • With my reputation ruined, I won’t be able to make any friends.
  • If I can’t make any friends, my life will be ruined.
  • If my life is ruined, suicide makes sense.

While this is a general statement of the flow of thought and probably would not be exactly what a teenage girl would say, you get the idea.

There is a logical flow to her reasoning in that each statement follows from, and is based on, the previous thought.

She, however, is catastrophising in that her reasoning is exclusionary in that it rules out other, less extreme, ways of viewing her situation and it is maladaptive in that it only looks at the most extreme and negative outcomes possible.

There are many ways to view an event in which you find yourself.

Catastrophising involves focusing on the worst possible outcome, taking it as the only possible outcome, and repeating this process over and over.

The issue with castastrophising is that it eliminates all other possible outcomes.

While each of the above reasoning steps has some truth to it, and, if each point was absolutely true in that other alternatives did not exist, then suicide would make more sense.

This is not the case in the above two examples.

Let me give you a counter example which will provide some contrast.

Assisted Suicide..

While you may not agree with the idea of assisted suicide, it is legal in several states.

The assisted suicide laws allow an individual with a terminal illness to request that a medical doctor make available a lethal medication that the person can take and peacefully end their lives.there are alternatives.

The reasoning goes like this…

  • I have a terminal illness so my death is “imminent”.
  • If I live until I die naturally, I will suffer considerably.
  • I do not want to suffer.
  • I have considered all the alternatives, reasoned this process through, and have decided on the best course of action for me to take.
  • I am of sound mind and have been assessed as capable of making this decision on my own without any coercion.
  • I prefer to get my affairs in order, have my family with me, take control of my life and choose when my life will end.

While “suicide” is the end result, the reasoning here is very different from the two examples of catastrophising above.

Example #1:

Let’s assume that the D grade eliminates med school admission (It may not!) and that this person would not become an MD.

Not becoming an MD may be unfortunate but it is only one career possibility.

I should point out that while this story is true, it is NOT autobiographical.

In my own case, I originally intended to become an MD, got a D in biochemistry, was very disappointed, did not get into med school, did not attempt suicide, and, by accident, discovered psychology and went on to get a Ph.D..

That D in chemistry was the best thing that could have happened to me.

So, while the process of catastrophising is logical in that it involves reasoning and arrives at a logical conclusion, it is problematic because it involves a highly restricted tunnel vision which only “sees” the worst possible outcome eliminates any other possibilities, takes that outcome as “fact”, and arrives at the worst possible conclusion without questioning the validity of that conclusion.

The antidote to catastrophising is to get input from other people.  If you find yourself spiraling down a psychological rabbit hole, reach out to another person who can give you an objective opinion about your situation.

That may be all you need.

If you are seriously considering suicide, then you need professional help immediately.

The number for the toll free 24-hour suicide crisis line is 1-800-273-8255.  If  you need to, make the call!