It’s a great word, isn’t it? Catastrophizing. We all do it everyday. One of the reasons that old horror films that don’t show any blood and guts or death can be so effective is because of humans’ tendency to catastrophize. We can always imagine worse than reality. Movies used to know that. Now we are given exponentially raised shock value in movies just to get us to raise an eyebrow. It’s because we don’t have to catastrophize at movies anymore – we can see it, it’s there, it’s not that bad. Just, you know… red.
In health care, catastrophizing can lead to freezing. People with fibromyalgia can grow to dread what could happen so much, we can imagine so vividly what might be, that we get stuck into a safe zone, and when we accidentally (or through a moment of physical defiance) stray from what’s safe, we can become like cats in a tree. Really, just like a cat in a tree. Literally.
A few years ago, my office decided to take an office picture outside near a tall wall with the name of our institute on it. First one younger, athletic woman hops up on the wall to sit for the picture. Pretty soon, others were being hoisted, pulled, boosted up onto the wall. I was one of the them. It wasn’t easy, but I was pretty proud to be up there. In the meantime, the sensible people my age were on the ground looking up at us with a “you’re gonna regret this” grin. Picture taken, and the young and fleet of foot started jumping off the wall. I suddenly realized how HIGH it was.
I’m not a fan of heights anyway, but I kept seeing in my head my ankles snapping when I hit the ground. If not snapping then spraining. In my head I was hurting my knees, my back, hips, all the way up. Whiplash. It wasn’t a strong possibility – it was going to happen. I froze. I laughed, but I froze. I couldn’t get down. I told people to stop pulling me down, I’d fall on them and squash them, but in my mind, I could hear the bones in my legs breaking. To my horror, I was the last person on the wall and there was a crowd of non-officemates gathered on the sidewalk with their phones out taking videos. Meow.
Finally, I rolled over on my belly and nudged myself down off the wall. Of course I later saw a picture of how large my butt really was up there on the wall, but at least I’m no longer up there. The people with their phones wandered away. Yes, I continued laughing the whole time. No, I didn’t snap an ankle, but I also didn’t jump.
That, folks, is catastrophizing.