Consider this story of Mary; Mary grew up as a child of an alcoholic mother, who would habitually fly into rages when she was intoxicated. Sometimes these rages where predictable, and sometimes they were not. As a child and teenager, Mary became adept at caring for her mother during her drunken stupors. Now Mary is an adult, she doesn’t drink, her husband doesn’t drink but she struggles with chronic anxiety which sometimes leads to episodes where she becomes emotional stuck Ruminating over worst case scenario.
Mary is all about control, she worries about most things going wrong she anticipates would happen. Every now and again when something happens, she goes into panic mode. She blames herself and others around her for everything that could go wrong and has gone wrong in her life and becomes easily angered and nasty towards her husband and children during episodes when she perceives there is a crisis.
The most recent episode was when she noticed her car had a flat tire as she was preparing to take her children to school. She became overly anxious about the children being late to school, then she worried about the children being kicked out of the school for being late, then she called her husband who had already taken off to work, and when he didn’t answer, she left several voice mail and texts messages, screaming and lamenting about how terrible and inconsiderate of a person he was.
As you can imagine, this was one of many episodes which placed significant stressed and created tension in her marriage. Mary suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, and in this case she doesn’t just internalize her fears she projects them unto others. With the intro given about her early life experience, it’s obvious how she developed her issues with anxiety. Having grown with an alcoholic and abusive parent, Mary became obsessed with control. She typically bends over backwards to please people in her life to make sure that everything goes smoothly and when things don’t go smoothly, she becomes panicked and begins catastrophizing the things not going her way.
The primary reason people catastrophize, negative events in their life is because they grew up experiencing chronic crisis. As a result their brains became wired to expect, and deal with crisis. In the absence of a crisis, these people experience chronic anxiety as they have grown custom to expecting something terribly bad to happen. When it doesn’t happen, they then go out of their way (sub consciously) to create some type of crisis in their lives. They don’t like or appreciate crisis, it’s just what they are used to.
However, there is good news, people like Mary who struggle with experiencing frequent crisis in their heads and life can get better. They can learn to recognize when they are starting to excessively worry about negative possibilities and counter those thoughts with positive and realistic possibilities.
In a previous post, I wrote about how our thoughts come in pairs. So for every negative thought you have, you have an opposite positive and equally influential thought occurring on the same spectrum. For example, a positive thought that could have occurred to Mary was to call a taxi cab, to give her and her children a ride to school. After she ensured that they were dropped off safely, she could have gone home to put on a spare tire and driven to a shop of her choice to get a new tire. This is one of many positive thoughts she could have thought of and acted upon.
Catastrophizing is a bad habit, and is one of many maladaptive mechanisms people use to cope with how past and chronic traumas have affected them, but with practice they can change. The rule is simple; for every negative and influential thought in your head, there exists an equally influential and positive thought.
As a rule of thumb I encourage people with Mary’s struggles to come up with three alternative and positive thoughts to every one negative thought they catch themselves ruminating on. For example, Mary could also have called for a tow truck while in the taxi cab on her way back from dropping her children off. Another alternative is that she could have called the school to inform them that her children would be delayed in coming to school due to her car troubles, then she could have called her husband and if he didn’t answer she could have chosen to wait for him to call back or she could have called a taxi.
When people write down their thoughts on paper, with the rule of three positives to one negative, there is a look of relief that comes on their faces.
In life, no matter how dire our circumstances, it is important to remember that we always have choices.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.