Catastrophizing: My most ridiculous episode in my life

So what is catastrophizing, well here’s a definition from Psychology Today: “Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to despair. When a situation is upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, they still feel like they are in the midst of a crisis.”

I know that with my worrying nature I can easily catastrophize and that’s why I had to catch myself with the pandemic crisis and now with the economic crisis, to pull myself back from listening to too much “doomsday” reactionary stuff. I think the worst spreaders of fear during the pandemic were (and still are) many of our own government health officials and many Dem politicians. As this economic crisis grows, so far, I think the biggest doomsday reactionaries are within the Prepper community and among some of the right-wing politicos. And yes, in both crises there legitimately are things to be concerned about, things to do to prepare and things to do to react in order to stay safe and “survive,” because in both of these crises, as in emergency situations generally, there are risks to our personal well-being. Everyone assesses risk differently and everyone has to find their own comfort level with how they react and respond, but catastrophizing isn’t a good coping strategy, especially in emergencies, because it leads to seriously impaired risk assessment and it can be paralyzing. For instance, becoming so fearful of COVID that you fear being around other people and wear a face mask inside your own car alone or at home or putting all your time, effort and money into turning your home into a bunker in preparation for some doomsday or SHTF event.

I’m going to share this video that explains catastrophizing and then I’m going to share a true story of my most ridiculous episode of catastrophizing that actually went on for years, until my husband refused to let me keep talking myself into disaster (it took almost 3 long years). Here’s the video by a licensed therapist, Emma McAdam:

When I was 15 years old I was in the car with my 16 year-old sister, who had her driver’s license and we were on a back country road, when she told me she would teach me how to drive. Despite my hesitation, she insisted, told me there was no traffic on that road and pulled over. She told me how easy it was. So, I pulled out and started slowly moving forward, but naturally a car came headed towards us and my sister yelled at me to pull over and stop. In my panic, I hit the gas instead of the brakes and we ended up in the field. The incident probably took a few seconds, no one was hurt, there was no damage to the car, but in my mind this incident created years of anxiety and a complete refusal to learn to drive. I was terrified of driving, believed I was too stupid to learn to drive and in my mind I was sure that if I was behind the wheel someone was going to get seriously hurt. My parents didn’t pressure me to drive and I had two older sisters who drove, plus my parents, so it didn’t matter if I drove or not.

My husband and I moved to Fort Bragg, NC in 1981 and being in the 82nd Airborne, he was away from home a lot, off on training exercises. Our oldest daughter was a baby and my husband told me I needed to learn to drive so that I could go to the store, doctor and do things when he was gone. He told me how much freedom it would give me to not have to rely on other people for transportation. He was absolutely right. I told him I can’t drive and that I tried once and it was a disaster.

He refused to accept that, so he convinced me to get a learner’s permit and he told me he would teach me how to drive. I didn’t believe I could learn to drive and I was convinced it would be a disaster. We put our daughter in her car seat in the backseat and she loved car rides, so on weekends we headed to the backroads of Fort Bragg for my driving lessons.

I panicked every time a car headed towards me and stopped dead in the road. This went on for months, but my husband refused to give up. He calmly told me I was doing better, with each little improvement and eventually he got me to the point where I would slow down to a snail’s crawl when a car headed towards me, but I didn’t stop and then we worked on maintaining my speed with oncoming traffic.

One time we were on those Fort Bragg backroads for my driving lesson and we encountered a scene from hell – we entered a darned war zone – Marines were visiting and engaged in a field training exercise. A Black Hawk helicopter descended from the sky and landed on the road up ahead of me. I was feeling a lot of panic and I asked my husband the dumbest question ever uttered. I asked him who had the right of way. He gave me this look of complete confoundment and said, “Who do you think?” I got what he meant – our Subaru vs. a Black Hawk helicopter. I tried to explain that I hadn’t read what to do if a helicopter lands on the road in the driver’s manual, but that just made my husband laugh hysterically. I never lived down that moment, because every so often over the years my husband would out of the blue smile at me and say, “Who has the right of way?”

My learner’s permit was good for 18 months, I think, but when it was close to expiring, I insisted I wasn’t ready to take the driver’s test, so I got a second learner’s permit. On and on I insisted I wasn’t ready for the driver’s test. I was driving everywhere with having a friend or my husband in the car, but I was convinced I’d be a disaster with the driving test.

One day my husband unexpectedly came home from work in the morning and told me to get our daughter’s clothes changed and we were going somewhere. He wouldn’t tell me where and said it was a surprise. When he pulled up in front of the driver’s testing place, I started telling my husband that I wasn’t ready and that I hadn’t looked at the driver’s manual in a long time. Finally he looked at me and calmly said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I started to feel really ridiculous, because the worst thing was that I would fail my driver’s test. He told me that if that happened we would go practice some more and try again. I told him I was sure I would fail, but I went in and took the test – and I passed it. He told me afterwards that I couldn’t get a third learner’s permit without taking a driver’s test first and that’s why he pressured me like that to take the driver’s test.

After that experience, I started being aware of my own tendency to worry too much and borrow way too much trouble, with pondering all the “what ifs.” Spending decades around the Army and being around my husband’s can-do attitude helped me learn to become better at “sucking it up and driving on,” as soldiers say.

There are legitimately disturbing things going on in the world right now. The pandemic impacted almost everyone in the world, as will the economic crisis that we’re being warned is fast approaching. Prepping some basic food, water and supplies and planning for common weather emergencies that impact your area is sensible, as is preparing for power outages. Learning more about emergency preparedness for other emergencies makes sense too. Few of us ever thought about preparing for a pandemic, so that was a curveball for most of us. The Provident Prepper, a prepper channel I really like on YouTube, did a pandemic prep video in 2019, but they present information in a calm, reasonable, and approachable way – no hysteria. Now we’re being told we’re headed towards a serious economic crisis. Running around trying to buy everything imaginable to prepare for America collapsing or doomsday won’t help you effectively prepare or cope with a serious economic crisis (or doomsday). It’s just going to turn you into a basket case and lead you to spend money that you probably can’t afford. It can lead to piles of excess “stuff” that you haven’t even figured out how to organize and store (or use). Most of all it’s likely going to lead to more panic buying and more catastrophizing.

Even the best preppers in the world or the best strategic planners don’t have a crystal ball, so when an emergency hits they have to deal with what they have and try to do the best with what they’ve got.

No one can be prepared for every possible emergency. I think it makes more sense to slow down, take a deep breath and make a list rather than rushing out to buy food and supplies reacting to social media rumors, hysteria or empty store shelf photos and videos. I still have pandemic supplies I’ll likely never use, so I’m now thinking about basic food and supplies – stuff I know I’ll use. Most of us have to prioritize when it comes to prepping, because only the super-rich can afford their own island oasis or isolated retreat to jet off to in a serious crisis. We can all learn to find more ways to use what we have, waste less, and reuse and repurpose things. It is perfectly sensible to have extra food, water and basic emergency supplies on hand, but running from store to store worrying about America collapsing or doomsday won’t help you make wise spending decisions. We’re still going to have to pay our bills next month and need money set aside for emergencies next month and the month after that too.

Breathe.

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Filed under Emergency Preparedness, General Interest

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