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Take a sabbatical from catastrophizing
December 28, 2022
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Catastrophizing. Now there’s a word that sounds just right for our time. What is it? An article in Medical News Today notes that “Catastrophizing means that a person fixates on the worst possible outcome and treats it as likely, even when it is not… Doctors also call catastrophizing ‘magnifying’ because a person makes a situation seem much worse than it is. Research suggests that catastrophizing can worsen both physical and mental health outcomes. For example, people with chronic pain who catastrophize may experience more severe pain.” Catastrophizing is perseverating that if you don’t get that job, or if a relationship breaks, or if your party loses an election, then your life is as good as over. Do you know someone who practices catastrophizing? Do you do it?
The actual catastrophes in the world feel like they are escalating exponentially. Climate change, caused by humans, is ringing bells and waving flags as hundred-year events seem to be occurring annually. Scientists warn regularly that climate change really is a catastrophe and will only get worse. Far worse. The divisiveness of the United States, especially in our governance but also in the populace, threatens so much of what we and our ancestors have held dear for so long. A New York Times headline summed up the big question: “The World’s Democracies Ask: Why Can’t America Fix Itself?” Pick an institution that doesn’t seem headed for a growing catastrophe. The church. Our schools. The justice system. Meanwhile, the declining ability of news media to report objectively upon worrisome catastrophes seems itself to be something of a catastrophe.
Then there are personal catastrophes in our lives, where we are inclined to fixate on the worst possible outcome and treat it as likely. We magnify our problems to seem far worse than they might really become. This mindset has little potential to help improve your situation. If anything, it does make it worse, for mental and physical health. Everyone worries or becomes anxious sometimes, but catastrophizing can be harmful to your health. The article from Medical News Today notes that “The primary difference between anxiety and catastrophizing is that sometimes, anxiety can play a useful role in a person’s life. For example, anxiety can help a person protect themselves from dangerous situations. However, catastrophizing usually has no benefits. Having catastrophic thoughts can fill a person’s mind with unnecessary emotions that take time and thoughts away from reality. While both anxiety and catastrophizing can be harmful, anxiety may be beneficial in some circumstances.”
The psychology of how our thoughts or worries influence other parts of our life has been examined for ages. When I was a boy, my pastor gave me a little book titled As a Man Thinketh by James Allen, which was first published by Simon and Schuster in 1902. Today we would add As a Woman Thinketh or As a Person Thinketh. Consider some of the gems from this book, as applicable to today as they ever were (I have changed the pronouns, to include everyone):
“As a person thinketh in his or her heart, so he or she is…”
“Good thoughts bear good fruit, bad thoughts bad fruit.”
“A person’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild…”
“A person is literally what he or she thinks, his or her character being the complete sum of all his or her thoughts.”
“A person is limited only by the thoughts that he or she chooses.”
“All that a person achieves and all that a person fails to achieve is the direct result of that person’s own thoughts.”
“A noble and Godlike character is not a thing of favor or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the effect of long-cherished association with Godlike thoughts.”
“Cherish your visions; cherish your ideals; cherish the music that stirs in your heart, the beauty that forms in your mind, the loveliness that drapes your purest thoughts.”
I think James Allen would propose that catastrophizing is a consequence of the thoughts a person chooses, especially when those thoughts get out of control. Fixating on the worst possible outcome and treating it to be likely is joined at the hip to self-fulfilling prophecy.
Catastrophizing may be a new word, but it is not a new phenomenon. What we need is a sabbatical, a rest from worrying about our catastrophes and fixating on what we conjure up as the worst possible outcomes.
Another of Allen’s gems is “good thoughts and actions can never produce bad results; bad thoughts and actions can never produce good results.” This implies that you are the gatekeeper for what you think. Even if your subconscious or your dreams conjure up negative thoughts, you can rewire them by thinking good thoughts. The Apostle Paul, writing from prison, captured this idea when he encouraged people in his time and in ours to think about what is excellent: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
I sometimes wonder if Paul had trouble falling asleep – his thoughts scattered, his mind ruminating over mistakes or regrets about past failures, and worrying about catastrophic troubles ahead. Do we consider that our personal or global catastrophes are bigger, worse, or more complicated than any who went before us? Will citizens a hundred years from now look back on our times and think of ours as the good old days?
Catastrophizing may be a new word, but it is not a new phenomenon. What we need is a sabbatical, a rest from worrying about our catastrophes and fixating on what we conjure up as the worst possible outcomes. Paul gives us the map for how to take that sabbatical – not to be blind to the world’s needs, to injustices, or to personal worries – but take a sabbatical and choose different thoughts. He encourages us to think about something else for a while, to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The basic premise is that you become what you think. Think the best, you become your best. Think the worst, you become your worst. Your attitude has the potential to determine your success, your contentment, your joy, your self-confidence and self-esteem, and your relationships with others, as you think the best of others too instead of the worst.
Good thoughts bear good fruit, wrote James Allen, and bad thoughts bad fruit. Think about that which bears good fruit. Tallying up your failures or mistakes? Take a sabbatical from that and instead tally up your successes and achievements. Haunted by unhappy memories? Recharge by recalling your favorite happy memories. Overwhelmed by injustices? For a moment, think about the good people you know who care about that which is right and just, and who would do the right thing, to stand with and speak for victims of injustice. With so many lies and distorted facts flooding the airwaves and social media, take a break to be grateful that most people are basically honest and honorable. With mediocrity weaving itself into the basic fabric of our society, rise above to think about that which is excellent, and set excellence as your dream.
Catastrophizing will not make things better. That which lies ahead, which you might worry about, may not be as bad as you think. Your worrying is not going to change anything, which may be why Jesus said “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34).
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.