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Taming Anxiety and Your Catastrophizing Brain

A little anxiety is normal and even useful. You may fear a particular thing like public speaking, heights, spiders, or the color purple. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode--faster breathing, sweating, heart rate up, tense muscles. It's an ancient response of the parasympathetic nervous system that makes our bodies ready to survive. To run. To deal with physical assault. Unfortunately, your body can't tell the difference between your irrational fear of the color purple and the perfectly appropriate response to being attacked by a saber-tooth tiger.

Like most emotions, anxiety can fall on a whole continuum of feeling. A mild twinge can be the nudge that gets the college student away from binge-watching to do homework. It might send you back into the house to make sure the toaster oven is turned off when you are leaving on vacation. Or it can spiral your brain into a panic that feels insurmountable.


For me, anxiety often exists as a kind of free-floating sense that something is going to go wrong. I often feel it when I'm tired or particularly stressed.

That feeling seems to be looking for something to attach to, whether it's something simple like leaving an appliance turned on or something huge like global warming. And once it attaches to something, the language in my head goes from ambiguous sometimes/often/maybe to definitive always/forever.

Psychologists call this type of thinking "catastrophizing." It's a kind of thinking trap that people with anxiety disorders and depression are prone to, but even mentally healthy people fall into the trap sometimes.

Catastrophizing is thinking that the Absolutely Worst Thing is going to happen.

My stomach hurts again. I have been sick to my stomach all week. That article I read last week said nausea is a symptom of advanced liver disease. I've been drinking more since COVID. It's probably my liver. I am going to Google it. "Fatigue. Swelling ankles." I've had all that ...and all those NSAIDS I've taken for chronic pain, yeah, there's no doubt it's my liver.

The thoughts above are an example of catastrophizing. Every headache is a brain tumor. Your husband is late coming home from work and clearly he's having an affair or died in a car accident. It's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad feeling.

Guardrails Exercise

When you find yourself catastrophizing...or even feeling anxious about a situation, try this exercise to get your mind back to a more reasonable mindset:

  1. Get all the worst possible thoughts out. Write them down, share them with a friend. Whatever works for you. If you are likely to go spiraling down into a rabbit hole of horrible, set a time limit on your catastrophizing. Maybe half an hour.

  2. Stop. Breathe. Think of what the best possible outcomes would be. For example, in my cirrhosis scenario above, the best possible scenario is that I just ate something nasty and the stomach issues will go away in a couple of days.

  3. Now, with those two ideas as your guardrails of negative and positive, what is the most likely scenario? In the health scenario, I might think that the most likely thing, since I've had issues with reflux before, is that I'm feeling some reflux. It's unlikely to be cirrhosis.

  4. Problem-solve: with your guardrails and middle-of-the-road in place, how might you deal with problems? First, I need to know what's causing the stomach pain. I can take an antacid for a week or so and see if it helps my stomach; if that doesn't help, I will make an appointment with the doctor.

When your thoughts are getting in your way and adding to your stress, using an exercise like this can help you calm your brain.

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