A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen

How the habit of catastrophizing often hijacks my life.

It’s 10:30 pm on a Friday night and I’m sitting in my parked car. I’m at the front of the empty parking lot of the emergency animal hospital, waiting for the on-call veterinarian to arrive. I’ve got my sick cat on my lap, safely nestled in his cage, and I know he’s apprehensive about being here. I am too. I’ve arrived fifteen minutes early, and though the vet isn’t here yet, she’s running right on time.

My cat, Maverick, is rubbing his face against my hand, which I’ve managed to contort and twist just small enough to fit through the bars of his cage. Maverick is a wonderful cat. Especially sensitive, overly quirky and a true sidekick through and through, I love this cat unconditionally. He’s got the most beautiful crystal blue eyes and looks at you with a face that understands exactly what you’re saying.

“It’s just a bladder infection and you caught it early, there’s nothing to worry about,” I say to myself, while Maverick’s face nervously rubs against my hand. “But the last time you told yourself not to worry and that everything would be fine, your Dad died.” And just like that, I begin to catastrophize.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, is defined as “a tendency to expect the worst to happen without considering other possibilities.”

“But the last time you told yourself not to worry and that everything would be fine, your Dad died.”

Last July, my Dad was rushed to the emergency room with chest pains and nausea. He worried he might be having a heart attack — which, in hindsight, would’ve actually been a preferred diagnosis. As it turned out, my Dad was suffering from an acute case of pancreatitis.

From what I could gather from my research, you don’t usually know you have an issue with your pancreas until you’re already in the throes of an attack. This was the first time he’d been admitted for pancreatitis, and while the majority of people will start out mild or moderate, my Dad was an overachiever. He got pancreatitis severely his very first time, and though we didn’t know it yet, this would also be his last.

The first night, my Dad had been placed in the CCU (Critical Care Unit) of the local hospital. Shortly after midnight, I got a phone call from my sister-in-law saying that my Dad had gone into shock due to the widespread swelling that was overtaking in his body. We rushed to the hospital and watched as he re-stabilized. The next day, we called our extended family to tell them what had happened — four of my uncles, as well as my grandparents, drove the hour and a half trip to support us and see my Dad. He seemed to be improving.

The following night, my Dad somehow suffered a cardiac arrest because the swelling had compressed his lungs and had compromised his ability to breathe. I got another call, this time near 2 in the morning, and rushed to the hospital again. I had no idea what was happening, but it didn’t feel good. Each time I’d go near his hospital bed, I’d feel faint and have to sit down.

My Dad was transported by ambulance the following day to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) of larger hospital over an hour away and placed in a medically-induced coma. For the entire duration of my Dad’s stay in the hospital, I chronicled his progress. Day after day, I wrote — convinced he’d want to hear every detail once he woke up. And as anxious as I am, it’s strange I never registered the possibility that he wouldn’t. My Dad passed away after three weeks in the ICU, at the young age of fifty-five.

I’ll never forget the moment I walked into his room to say goodbye — nothing could prepare me for what I was walking into. By this point, I’d watched my Dad stay plugged into various machines for nearly a month. Machines that kept him breathing, kept his blood pressure stable, filtered his kidneys and monitored his heart rate. Due to the fact that this was his first bout of pancreatitis and that he’d been in otherwise good health (and all things considered, very young), none of us — including the physicians and nurses caring for him, anticipated it would end this way. None of us saw it coming.

My whole world shifted beneath my feet the moment I witnessed a world without him in it. It gutted me beyond anything else I’d ever experienced. He left a huge hole in my life, one in which I suspect I’ll always feel him missing.

Day after day, I wrote — convinced he’d want to hear every detail once he woke up. And as anxious as I am, it’s strange I never registered the possibility that he wouldn’t.

A month after my Dad died, our family dog Chase fell ill. A handsome, regal Doberman Pinscher, Chase was diagnosed with Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy at the age of only 7 years.

We began noticing a problem when Chase suddenly developed a strange cough, accompanied by some swelling on one side of his chest. We got the diagnosis quickly and spent the following few months giving him the proper medication, trying to prolong the inevitable as long as we could. By January, Chase’s disease had progressed to the point where his heartbeat was inconsistent and much too fast to be sustainable.

My brother and I drove out to my Mom’s house to spend some time with him and see how he was doing. The following morning, Chase collapsed in my brother’s arms on his way in from being in the backyard. His heart had stopped after he’d finished climbing the stairs. Though it eventually started up again, we knew this marked the beginning of the end for him.

We couldn’t risk the possibility of it happening again — especially given that it was January and absolutely freezing outside in Northern Ontario, but we knew it was only a matter of time until it did. So my brother and I did the unthinkable, the last thing anyone ever wants to do, especially given that we’d just watched our Dad die months earlier. We brought Chase into the veterinarian’s office, we held him close, and we made sure he felt safe and loved while we said our goodbyes.

I’d already begun crying while sitting in the waiting room of the vet’s office, before even walking into the examination room. I knew what was coming. This feeling was too familiar, and I wanted the vet to know this was too soon for us. We shouldn’t have to do this again. But I said nothing, and I looked death in the face once more. I cried for three days straight. We said goodbye to Chase less than a week before my 30th birthday.

Not only am I worried that my cat won’t make it through this bout of illness, but I start to picture my life without him — and it’s a grim one at best. Then I worry about losing everyone else around me, watching them get picked off the family tree, one by one. When the worst thing imaginable happens, how do you stop imagining the worst? And so it is, the past year more prevalent than ever, my anxious need to worst-case scenario everything.

When the worst thing imaginable happens, how do you stop imagining the worst?

“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true,” explains clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. John M. Grohol. And while they can feel very accurate, cognitive distortions tend to alter our capacity for rational thinking, as they hone in and reinforce our negative thought patterns. So cognitive distortions are essentially fallacies of thought and perception, and the act of catastrophic thinking, or catastrophizing, is one of the many ways in which these fallacies can manifest.

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair describes a tendency to catastrophize as a way of discharging anxiety and regaining control of a situation. Because if you’re prepared for the worst-case scenario, then nothing can catch you off-guard, and you feel a greater sense of relief when things don’t result in your predicted disaster. But it becomes a pattern of behavior — feeling anxious, seeking a reason or explanation, and gaining a sense of relief when you find words for it, even if the words aren’t applicable. Finding that relief, even temporarily, rewards and reinforces the behavior, but the anxiety always comes back. So while the cycle is self-perpetuating, it’s ultimately inefficient at fixing the problem.

But there’s also a root of trauma in all this worrying.

Matthew Tull Ph.D., associate professor and director of anxiety disorders research in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, describes catastrophic thinking as a coping mechanism in response to suffering trauma. “The trauma is viewed as proof that the worst actually can happen,” Tull explains. “As time goes on, catastrophic thinking develops into a day-to-day coping strategy designed to help ensure that the person will never be placed in a dangerous situation again.”

How am I supposed to feel safe when I’m being programmed to fear everything around me?

“In trauma survivors, the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger remain overactivated and even the slightest sign of danger, real or misperceived, can trigger an acute stress response accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations,” writes Dutch psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Van der Kolk, as reported in this article by Brain Pickings.

While my brain tries to protect me from suffering further trauma, it causes me more pain and suffering in the process.

How am I supposed to feel safe when I’m being programmed to fear everything around me? How do I tell my brain it’s wrong and that there’s nothing to worry about when it insists on using my lived experience against me? How do I remind myself that no amount of anxious rumination could’ve ever inoculated me from the pain of my loss? How can I distinguish between an act of self-preservation and one of self-destruction?

Some experts suggest the way to combat catastrophic thinking is by funneling the anxious energy into more productive streams, and learning how to better self-soothe. Others state it’s important not to conflate the past or present with the future, and to recognize that thoughts are just thoughts, and not reality.

But the caveat, of course, is that the more you avoid thinking about something, the less you actually succeed at bypassing it. It haunts you. It forces its way through. You have to face a feeling, whether negative or positive, in order to let it go.

So what’s the solution? Well, maybe it’s not so simple.

Maybe it’s a combination of all the above, married up with substantially more time and experience away from the trauma I’ve suffered. Maybe I’ll always be a little more anxious than other people. Maybe I’ll have to work extra hard at maintaining self-awareness and reminding myself that just because the worst-case scenario has happened in the past, that doesn’t mean it will happen again.

But then again, that doesn’t mean it won’t.

I’m basically a house cat with a penchant for introspection | linktr.ee/shanleighwats

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