Catastrophe poses a daily threat. Chest discomfort becomes a heart attack, an engine noise evolves into a $2,000 repair. All the while, depression and anxiety run rampant. Let’s talk about catastrophizing…
What better way to avoid crushing disappointment than to expect – even create – the worst?
It’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, this catastrophizing business can be torturous. And unless we come to understand what’s really going on – and intervene – it can unnerve us forever. Lots to discuss, so we’ll take care of biz in two parts. First, what catastrophizing is and why we do it. And we’ll get into what to do about it in part two. Off with us…
What is catastrophizing?
Within the realm of cognitive (having to do with mental processes) theory and therapy, catastrophizing is one of the most common cognitive distortions. What are those? Well, they’re exaggerated and often irrational thoughts that hold the power to generate and perpetuate loads of depression and anxiety. Simply, catastrophizing is when we create, well, a catastrophe that simply doesn’t exist or won’t occur. And we may not even be aware we’re doing it. It’s all about “What Ifs?” and worst case scenarios.
Two types of catastrophizing
Okay, there are two types of catastrophizing…
In the immediate: You’re sure your heart palpitations are a symptom of serious heart disease. This morning you heard about a new heart institute at one of the local hospitals. So you hopped on Google, grabbed a diagnosis, and called for a referral.
In the future: Your anxiety and associated depression have been intense. And, go figure, you’re out of work and interviewing. Two weeks ago you barely survived (so you think) a biggie. Lo and behold, the recruiter just called and you scheduled a second interview for next week. You’re sure you’ll royally blow that one, too.
That’s catastrophizing. Now, it’s really important to understand that catastrophizing isn’t a disorder. Being a cognitive distortion, it’s a manifestation – symptom – of our mood or anxiety pathology.
Why do I catastrophize?
Who really knows why the mind does what it does. But when it comes to catastrophizing, I’ll go with P.E.A.C.E.…
Protection: If we believe danger lurks around every corner, catastrophizing makes perfect sense. What better form of protection than believing in horrific outcomes? And what better way to justify avoidance?
Explanation: Explanations are huge during times of pain. So maybe the self-created catastrophe isn’t the most desirable outcome. But it sure beats being clueless as to what’s behind our desperation and distress.
Assurance: As unpleasant as it is, catastrophizing provides a certainty of mind. And when any sense of self is tough to come by, created catastrophes can provide identity.
Cry for help: When was the last time you witnessed, or read about, a true catastrophe that someone wasn’t crying out for help? Self-created catastrophes can provide the perfect setting for doing some crying out of our own. And if we’re (un)lucky, a responder may even be willing to stick around and lend a hand..
Expectation: What better way to avoid crushing disappointment than to expect – even create – the worst?
When we consider P.E.A.C.E., it’s pretty easy to understand why we may so easily become an ever-cycling, depressed, anxious, and catastrophic mess.
Life can be hard. And when it gets that way we have two choices. We can quit or we can absorb the blows and use them to better ourselves and help others. Experience the Spafford’s story…
’But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.’
Years ago, I walked into church on Easter Sunday, shook the pastor’s hand, and asked him how he was doing.
He looked me square in the eyes and said, “It is well with my soul.” His facial expression spoke for his sincerity.
I was deeply touched by the pastor’s reply. This guy had something I wanted. So I made it my business to dig in to the origin of “It is well with my soul.”
What I found was fascinating, heartbreaking, and inspiring.
“It Is Well with My Soul”
Fact is, growing up in the United Methodist Church, I’m familiar with the pastor’s words. I’ve sung the hymn “It is Well with My Soul” dozens of times.
Here’s the first verse…
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
The lyrics of the hymn were written by Horatio Spafford, the music composed by Philip Bliss. It was first published in 1876.
I’ll tell the tale…
A family’s remarkable story
Horatio Spafford was a successful lawyer who’d significantly invested in Chicago property.
Unfortunately, most of his properties were in the area of the city that was horribly damaged by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The losses financially ruined him.
If that wasn’t enough, what remained of his business portfolio was decimated by the financial Panic of 1873.
Spafford knew It was time to get away, so he and his wife Anna planned a family trip to Europe on the French steamship Ville du Havre.
However, due to ongoing business challenges, a decision was made that Anna and their four daughters would make the trip, Spafford joining them later.
On November 22, 1873, as seen in our featured image, the Ville du Havre (on the right) collided with the British ship Loch Earn and sank in 12 minutes. All four of their daughters were among the 226 souls lost.
Miraculously, Anna survived; floating unconscious on a plank of wood.
A fellow survivor recalled her saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”
Nine days later, Anna landed in Wales and cabled her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”
Horatio sets sail
Horatio made the trip to Europe to meet the grieving Anna and accompany her home.
During his passage, the ship’s captain called him to his cabin to tell him they were passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre sunk.
Horatio, a devout Presbyterian, wrote to Anna’s half-sister: “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”
Not long after, Horatio wrote the words for what would become “It Is Well with My Soul.” When Philip Bliss put the words to music, he named it “Ville du Havre.”
Absorbing the blow
Back in the States, the Spaffords had three more children. Sadly, one of them died at age four of scarlet fever.
The Presbyterian Church considered their tragedies divine punishment, so the Spaffords formed a Christian utopian society.
In 1881, the Spafford family, with a small number of society members, left for Jerusalem – setting up what they called the American Colony.
The Colony provided aid to the Christians, Jews, and Muslims of Jerusalem – without proselytizing motives. Their soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, and other charitable ventures were critical during and immediately following World War I.
The American Colony became world renowned after being featured in the novel Jerusalem, written by Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlöf.
What about you?
Life’s going to get hard – count on it. And we can either throw in the towel or take the hits and turn them into positive thinking and action.
We hear it from family, friends, our therapist – ourselves: “You’re doing it to yourself.” You don’t have to be Sigmund to know the implication is self-sabotage. But is it true? Look for these 15 signs…
You minimize and maximize situations, events, and memories so they conform to your immediate reality.
How often do you hear the perplexing and irritating observation? You know, the one that aggravated the heck out of you last year – and the year before.
Believe me, I get it.
If you’re wondering if self-sabotage is demolishing your life, maybe it’s time to settle the matter.
What is self-sabotage?
The best way I know to kick things off is with a definition. Self-sabotage…
Intentional action or inaction that undermines progress and stands in the way of accomplishing goals. Self-sabotage occurs when one hinders their own success.
Now, I believe “intentional” can be consciously and/or unconsciously. And it’s huge to keep in mind that behind every self-sabotaging action or inaction is a self-sabotaging thought.
I mean, it has to start somewhere.
The top three examples of self-sabotaging behavior? Procrastination, perfectionism, and self-medication.
You may know from personal experience that self-sabotage can generate major problems, such as chronic struggles with food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and self-injury.
And, of course, destructive behavior can suck us dry of every ounce of inspiration, motivation, and drive we possess.
What causes self-sabotage?
You know how it is with the causes of emotional and mental health ailments. Rarely are there any “for sures.”
That said, the causes of self-sabotage are believed to include a difficult childhood, prior relationship difficulties, low self-esteem, need for a coping mechanism, and cognitive dissonance – the mental discomfort one may feel when holding two conflicting ideas at the same time.
If any of them apply to you, consider it a heads up.
“Am I self-sabotaging?” 15 signs to look for
Here we go. If you’re wondering if you self-sabotage, here are 15 signs to look for.
But real quick, don’t forget about the top three examples we reviewed earlier: procrastination, perfectionism, and self-medication.
Okay, see what fits…
When you look back on your life, you see a pattern of struggling to manage the same symptoms and issues you are now.
There never seem to be obvious reasons for why you don’t feel well.
Your behavior isn’t in synch with your goals and values.
You frequently use the words/concepts “always,” “every,” “never,” “there’s no alternative,” “should,” “must.”
Positives most always fall by the wayside, as negatives get top billing.
You feel uneasy and uncomfortable when you make progress.
Jumping to conclusions and knee-jerk reactions are common.
You know just how lousy things will turn out long before they occur.
You’re sure you know what others are thinking, and their intentions. And it isn’t good.
You minimize and maximize situations, events, and memories so they conform to your immediate reality.
You’re always able to come up with – and focus upon – the worst possible outcome.
One of your personal rules is “I feel it, so it has to be true.”
Instead of rationally explaining events or behaviors, you apply emotionally loaded, rigid, and absolute labels.
You assign responsibility to yourself for situations, events, and people over which you have no control.
You believe you don’t deserve good things and success.
Anything hit home? Keep in mind, these are signs. Let’s just say they place you in the self-sabotage neck of the woods. And it’s up to you to determine if you belong there.
How to manage self-sabotage
“I see the light and I belong here. Self-sabotage is demolishing my life and I’m ready to do something about it.”
Well, you made a decision. There’s no doubt in your mind that self-sabotage is demolishing your life. And you’ve decided it’s gotta’ go. Good.
As you begin your recovery journey, don’t expect 100% resolution. Between genetics, anatomy and physiology, and environmental factors, we have our embedded leanings.
Strive for reducing life interruption, not perfection (there’s that word again).
I have always been a proponent of therapy for emotional and mental woes. Not only are the added knowledge and outside observations helpful, it’s nice to have someone along for the ride.
Your stress response behaves badly and you’ve come to understand why. Great first step, but now it’s time to pull in the reins. And to do it you need to learn about your relaxation response. Let’s get busy…
Is it any wonder the RR is an effective intervention for all sorts of health concerns – anxiety disorders, hypertension, chronic pain…
We began a two-part series last week on our stress and relaxation responses.
Part one handled our stress response (fight/flight) and we’ll wrap things up by digging into our relaxation response.
As I said last week, most everything you’re about to read comes from a great book written by Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, Say Good Night to Insomnia.
Here we go…
The discovery of the relaxation response
Prior to the 1960s, voluntary control over the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – in charge of our respiration rate, heart rate, digestion, etc. – was thought impossible.
But later that same decade some significant discoveries in the world of biofeedback challenged that notion. And scientists soon discovered control over the ANS could be achieved.
Seems the biofeedback outcomes were so impressive, scientists began studying other ANS-managing mind/body techniques, such as meditation and relaxation.
Dr. Herbert Benson
Dr. Jacobs’ mentor, Dr. Herbert Benson, was one of the first scientists to conduct research on biofeedback, meditation, and relaxation techniques.
After years of research, Benson was impressed by the fact that each of these techniques produced the same physiological quieting response.
He called it the relaxation response.
What is the relaxation response?
Benson proposed that the relaxation response (RR) is our body’s inborn counter-balancing mechanism to the stress response and can be used to offset its damaging effects.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that the RR occurs automatically when it comes to physical stressors; however, such is not the case with psychological stressors.
That means we have to learn to consciously initiate the RR to counter the effects of excessive stress responses.
Is it any wonder that the RR is an effective intervention for all sorts of health concerns – anxiety disorders, hypertension, chronic pain, GI issues, blood sugar stabilization, a vulnerable immune system, insomnia, menopausal hot flashes, and more?
How to turn on the relaxation response
Dr. Benson could have left his work in the discovery process and it would have been “job well done.” However, he went on to define the four elements necessary to elicit the RR…
A quiet place with eyes closed to minimize distractions
A comfortable position and muscular relaxation
A mental focusing device such as breathing, a word, or an image to shift the mind away from distracting thoughts
Passive disregard of everyday thoughts
So with that foundation, according to Benson and Jacobs, here’s what it takes to turn on the RR…
Relax the muscles throughout your body: Lying down or sitting comfortably, close your eyes and feel relaxation gradually spreading. What you’re looking for are feelings such as warmth, heaviness, tingling, floating – or nothing.
Establish a relaxed and abdominal breathing pattern.
Direct your attention from everyday thoughts by using a mental focusing device that’s neutral and repetitive. Jacobs suggests words such as one, relax, peace, heavy. For many, it’s helpful to repeat the word silently with each exhaled breath. The mental focusing device can also be a visual image – a vacation spot, floating on a cloud, or a place of your creation.
Have you ever done it? Do you hurt badly enough to give it a try?
Don’t force it and practice
“Okay, abdominal breaths and stay focused in the moment. Nice and easy, kid.”
It’s important to allow the RR to work at its own pace.
Don’t force it or get upset if things aren’t going as you’d like. And if distractions present, do your best to ignore them and return to your mental focusing device.
Understand that quieting your mind isn’t easy at first. With practice, however, your skills will improve.
Jacobs recommends practicing daily for 10-20 minutes. Of course, that means finding time. But you’re more likely to allocate time if you look at it as something that will improve mood, performance, and health – as important as eating right and exercising.
Jacobs suggests if we can’t find time for developing our RR, we’re likely the ones who need it the most.
How ’bout what Jacobs calls “minis?” He submits they’re a way to call upon our RR when time is at a premium or we can’t close our eyes (in a traffic jam, waiting in line, in a meeting, etc.).
A mini is an abbreviated RR session. And it involves taking just a few moments to relax your muscles – particularly the neck, shoulders, and face – then practicing abdominal breathing and mental focusing techniques.
Minis offer three advantages: they can be used most anytime and anywhere to cope with stressful situations, they can be used more frequently than a full RR session, and they may end up being more effective than tapping into the RR just once daily.
No knowledge, no relief
So there you have the goods on the relaxation response. Huge to know and activate when our stress response behaves badly, as well as for overall health maintenance.
No knowledge, no relief. Right? I hope you find the series helpful..
If you haven’t already, give part one a go. Great info on the stress response.
The emotional, mental, and physical impact of our symptoms and stress can be savage. And the only way to find relief is to understand how our stress and relaxation responses work. Let’s do it…
‘…we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.’ Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs
Some years ago I was looking for information regarding drug-free insomnia treatment and bumped into a great book.
Say Good Night to Insomnia was written by Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, who developed the first drug-free program that proved more effective than meds.
Where we’re going
The book includes valuable information regarding how our stress and relaxation responses work. And that’s where we need to go.
To maximize learning, we’ll handle it in two parts. Let’s take care of our stress response in this piece and we’ll take a look at our relaxation response in part two.
Off with us…
Our stress response
Our stress response (SR), aka fight/flight response, is a collection of involuntary physiological changes that occur when we’re faced with threatening or stressful circumstances.
Simply, it pushes our bodies into a state of arousal and preparation.
By the way, it’ll be helpful to read up on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). Don’t let the med-speak spook you, it’s interesting.
Stress response in action
Okay, here’s what happens when our SR is triggered…
Pumping of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine) to activate our nervous system and put us on edge.
Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration to ramp up physical strength and energy.
Heightened visual and hearing acuity, and faster brain waves, to enhance alertness and mental reactions.
Decreased blood flow to the stomach and extremities, and increased blood flow to the brain, muscles, heart, and lungs to support fight/flight.
Increased muscle tension. Interesting, this is an evolutionary mechanism that allowed our cave-dwelling ancestors to assess danger and remain immobile so they weren’t seen by predators. It also prepared them for fight/flight and protected them from injury by creating “body armor.”
Increased sweating to cool the body.
Increased blood sugar levels to reduce fatigue and increase energy.
Maybe you’ve experienced one or more of these and were distressed because you didn’t know why it was happening. Could be your SR was crankin’ beneath conscious awareness.
I mean, let’s not forget how sensitive those of us with a mood or anxiety disorder can be to our internal and external environments.
“All this stuff, all this stimulation. No wonder I constantly pump adrenaline.”
Now, granted, we aren’t facing the physical threats experienced by our ancestors. However, we’re still up to our eyeballs in personal stressors, which are often frequent and chronic.
Just think about your relationships, work, family, schooling, and finances.
But there’s more
On top of that, we’re responsible for juggling social and environmental stressors. Jacobs emphasizes the decline of the family, noise pollution and overcrowding, a constant sense of time pressure, and exposure to rapidly increasing amounts of information and global events via computers and mass communication.
It isn’t a news flash that our brains don’t distinguish between physical, personal, and social/environmental stressors. Stress is stress.
There’s a problem
So now we’re faced with a problem…
We can’t avoid stress and we can’t toss aside our SR’s physical arousal by fighting or fleeing. That’s because fighting and fleeing aren’t socially acceptable responses to stressful situations.
As Jacobs wisely observes, if your boss fires you, slugging her or running away aren’t good choices..
Suffice it to say, many of us are left with chronic, inappropriate, and excessive SR activation. And it can happen so frequently during any given day that it becomes automatic.
The stress-illness connection
Those who have an automatic – unconscious – SR may find themselves in the midst of what Jacobs refers to as the stress-illness connection.
The idea that an over-the-top SR can generate physical health problems is well-accepted. Jacobs puts things in perspective by pointing out that 50-80% of all complaints brought to a physician’s office are stress-related.
Muscle problems: Chronic tension, headache, neck and back pain
Cardiovascular issues: Increased blood pressure and cholesterol, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, increased risk of cardiovascular disease
Compulsive behavior problems: Substance use, gambling, consumption of pornography
Not only are these manifestations of a hair-on-fire SR, they become stressors in and of themselves, leading to additional SR activity and unhealthy cycling.
I mean, where does it all end?
Drivers of the stress-illness connection
According to Jacobs, studies implicate the following stressors as notable drivers of the stress-illness connection…
Marital conflict, separation, divorce
Job loss and unemployment
Death of a loved one
Caring for an incapacitated loved one
To wrap things up on the stress-illness connection, this from Dr. Jacobs…
… life without stress would be a life without challenge, adaptation, and growth. Stress becomes a problem when it is excessive and chronic. As research consistently documents, we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.
No arguments here.
On to the relaxation response
That’ll do it for the stress response. Do you see how important it is to get it squared away before we leap into the relaxation response?
Makes sense that relief is tough to come by if we aren’t fully briefed on our adversary.