Rational thinking is conducive to healing: catastrophizing is not.
When I first heard my mentor explain the word “catastrophizing” in the context of health and healing, I was stunned. Here it was: a word to describe so many of the health challenges I’d been through – or, rather, my experiences of those challenges. These experiences were rooted in root fears: that my lifestyle was in danger, that the ailment would never pass, that being sick, injured, or unhappy was now the reality of my life, and that it would last like this forever.
Catastrophizing is perceiving an event or condition as much worse than it actually is. According to Psychology Today, it has 2 main parts:
Predicting a negative outcome
Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.
I am not claiming to be able to distinguish between “catastrophe” and a significantly unpleasant event when it comes to your health. I am going to touch upon the effects that catastrophizing has on one’s health and healing path, and how to pacify the unnecessary negative effects borne out of catastrophizing.
Here is an example – a true story of mine – that exemplifies catastrophizing.
Two summers ago, I spent some months interning at a residential dance studio. The lifestyle was a dream: gardening, living in nature, meditating, dancing, hosting retreats.
I felt strong and healthy, until one day I noticed a pain in the back of my leg, just under the sits bone. Immediately, I was overcome with panic: “oh no…oh no…this is that inflamed hamstring tendon flaring up…last time it took months to heal…but I’m here…and need to be working…and dancing…and I committed this entire summer to be here and now I’m injured and I won’t be able to dance and maybe not even work and then I’ll have to move and maybe I could get to a city to see an osteopath but I wonder how much that will cost and then I’ll have to make a travel insurance claim and then I might not be able to get a proper insurance plan in the future and now I’m stuck and everything is going to fall apart.”
Noting the Facts: there was a pain in my hamstring.
Catastrophizing: everything else.
What’s so bad about thinking about the future, anyway? Isn’t it responsible for us to think of all possible outcomes?
Yes, I would say this is responsible. But remember the definition of catastrophizing: predicting a negative outcome. I wasn’t considering, rationally, all possible outcomes. My mind had gone into a flurry of worry about the worst-case scenario as if that would definitely be the one that happened. To some degree, the brain is wired for this: it’s part of our survival mechanism. But because we are human beings with a cerebral cortex and, well, consciousness, we have the response-ability to zoom out and consider all possibilities.
Here are three steps to achieving this:
1.RECOGNIZE that you are catastrophizing. How do you know if you are? Any time your mind jumps immediately from accounting for the facts to worse-case-scenario (and continues to snowball from there), it is a sign of catastrophizing. Ask yourself if it is all true, and if there are any other possible outcomes. Account for the facts, and distinguish between these and “everything else” that makes up the catastrophizing.
2. RESET the mind. Einstein famously said that we cannot solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them. Sometimes it’s possible to just switch our mindset to get rational, but oftentimes (and I’m guessing you’ve experienced this), it’s not.
Have you ever tried to convince someone who is deeply upset or scared that “everything is going to be okay”?
When our energies are in a certain resonance, our thoughts and feelings tend to vibrate in that resonance as well. In yoga, we use techniques that reset and balance the energetic body. Asana and pranayama (breathing techniques) are powerful tools that can be used to shift our vibration, and therefore make it possible to shift the state of the mind.
To reset, try some of these tools:
Body: Perform 12 rounds sun salutations with deep, rhythmic breathing to move the energy and ground the mind in the body.
Sound: Sitting comfortably, inhale deeply through the nose, and exhale the sound “AUM” through the mouth. Continue in this rhythm for 7-10 minutes, noticing the vibration of the sound in belly, chest, and head.
Breath: Sitting comfortably, inhale through the nose for a count of 4 and exhale through the mouth – with pursed lips – for a count of 8 to calm the mind and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Repeat at least for 3-5 minutes.
3. RESPOND to the situation. After grounding and balancing through one or all of the techniques listed above, you’ll be in a better state to see the situation clearly. In my case of the tendonitis, I took action where I could, and surrendered where I couldn’t.
I minimized movements that strained the area, kept up with my meditation practice, connected with my boss to tell him what was going on, and reached out to a physical therapist I’d known previously to ask her advice on what to do. When we take action, there is a shift in the brain: this shift initiates a sense of calm and proactivity. It pulls us out of the toxic cycle of catastrophizing.