Anxiety’s False Interpretations (Part 2): Catastrophizing

Catastrophes refer to those devastating and tragic turn of events that ruin lives. We may think of environmental events like earthquakes and hurricanes and volcano eruptions. Anxiety tends to live in the what if of potential tragedies. One of anxiety’s most common interpretations is to focus on the worst possible outcome in a situation.

We might call this anxiety’s tendency to catastrophize. If we are prone to anxiety, we are likely to project the worst-case scenario onto any given situation. We overestimate the likelihood of a devastating outcome and then live in light of that inevitable future. So, for Sally (not hear real name), if she could say something embarrassing and humiliate herself then it was given that she would. Going to a work party was a terrifying event because, in her anxious mind, it meant that she was going to ruin her reputation with co-workers, get fired or have to quit, and then she would be unemployed. That worst possible outcome consumed her thoughts. Clark and Beck note that this sort of thinking overestimates likelihood and severity of a problem. They write:

We call this type of dangerous thinking catastrophizing, or blowing things out of proportion. When we are anxious, we tend to catastrophize about the ordinary, everyday experiences of life; we think the worst-case scenario is much more likely to occur than it is. (The Anxiety & Worry Workbook, 31)

That elevated sense of severity and likelihood are a key piece of many anxieties. Catastrophizing focuses particularly on the worst possible outcome, and overealizes that potential tragedy in the present.

Catastrophizing leaves us with a super narrow focus, unable to see any other potential outcomes as equally or even more likely in the situation. One of the keys to fighting back against catastrophizing is enabling ourselves to see the possible outcomes. Of course part of the reason we struggle to see these other possibilities is because anxiety happens quickly and gets more intense as we experience the anxiety. Research has revealed that an anxious thought usually arises in less than half of a second. And, the intensity of an experience of anxiety clouds our thinking so that all we can see is the threat or danger that occupies our mind. So, analyzing a situation for all the potential outcomes becomes difficult.

Before we learn to evaluate possible outcomes, we must first confront the heart of unbelief that lies at the heart of catastrophizing. The prophet Elijah is a good example of this type of anxious interpretation. Many will know the story of 1 Kings 19. Having just humiliated the prophets of Baal, and having seen God do amazing things in consuming the soaking wet sacrifice, Elijah runs back to the city expecting that the whole of God’s people will repent and submit to Yahweh. Instead, he finds the Queen Jezebel issue threats against his life. It was no doubt discouraging, but the prophet allows himself to take this discouragement, and this truly anxious thought, and run with it to the worst possible conclusions. He has seen God do tremendous things, but his perspective is so skewed that in this moment he can’t see God’s power, grave, and reliability. Instead he runs into the wilderness until he is exhausted and there asks God to kill him.

Gods’ response to Elijah is one of grace and compassionate care. He tells the man to rest and eat a good meal, to regain his strength. Then, God reorients the prophet towards truth and hope. Elijah believes that he is the only one left who is faithful to the Lord (1 Kings 19:10). That is a response of catastrophizing, but God tells him differently and gives him hope. There area actually 7,000 people in Israel who are still faithful to Yahweh (v. 18). Elijah’s despair and anxiety anticipated the worst possible conclusions, but it wasn’t true. He couldn’t see any other possible outcome because of unbelief. The same is often true for us too.

Catastrophizing leaves God out of our equations. All future possibilities are nothing but tragic because God is not operating in that future. We need to challenge our own hearts to believe God. His Word warns us not to lean on our own understanding, but to trust in Him (Prov. 3:5). In the mode of catastrophizing we are not reliable guides to truth, but God is and He is operating in the future as much as in the present. Confront unbelief in our hearts. We may need to take a break, get some rest, get some sustenance, like God provides for Elijah, but we must also seek to refocus our minds and hearts too, like God does for Elijah. Use God’s Word to challenge your unbelief. Focus on His character, His provisions, His truth. Pat Quinn has writtenly beautifully on this subject, see his blog for more.

Having addressed unbelief and recognized our need to confront this core issue, we can begin to evaluate our thinking about possible outcomes. I recommend writing assignments, as writing out our thinking allows us to see more clearly what is true, partially true, and completely false in our thoughts. Then, we want to write out all possible actions steps and begin to evaluate the good, bad, and neutral responses. An example might look like this:

Anxious Thought: If I go to the movie I will have to sit in the middle of an isle, then I will have a panic attack and not be able to get out of my seat.

True:  I have had panic attacks at the movie theater in the past.

Partially True: I may have a panic attack this time. I may have to sit in the middle of an isle. It is difficult to get out of a seat in the middle of an isle.

False: It is not a guarantee that I will have a panic attack, nor is it absolutely true that I will have to sit in the middle of an isle. It is completely false that I will be unable to leave if I am feeling anxious.

Restatement of my Anxious Thought: If I go to the movies I might have to sit in the middle of an isle and I might also have a panic attack. It will be difficult to get out the isle if I do have a panic attack, but I can still leave if I need to.

Possible Responses: Don’t go to the movies today. Explain to my friends ahead of time that I need to sit close to the end of the isle in case I have to leave. Go to the movies and plan to leave if I get too anxious. Pray and trust God to provide the care and help that I need.

This system of evaluation does not, necessarily, make anxiety go away. There may still be a battle with anxious thoughts, but by evaluating I can see the flaws in my thinking – the catastrophizing interpretation of my anxiety. I can also see that my options are not limited, there is more than one way to respond to this situation and more than one possible outcome. I can also seek to practice faith and trust God in the moment to assist me.

If catastrophizing says that the worst possible outcome is likely, faith pushes back by pointing to the God who is more powerful than all my potential futures. Catastrophizing comes from unbelief, but we can pray “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

1 Comment

  1. This is so good….. I have found that I need to “Interrogate” my thoughts, all of them. I like how you said to write them out. It helps with the clarity. I find when I struggle the most I am in a fog and am not thinking clear. Slow down, interrogate your thoughts and then move on. Great work my friend.

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