In a dopey, sleep-deprived haze I hear two escalating cries, as my beautiful, tiny, newborn twin girls become tired and restless. I no longer hear the birdsong outside, see the morning sun streaming in, or notice the lovely flowers on the bench. The rest of the world fades away. All I hear is the screams. Those two helpless screaming children. Nothing I do can stop them. I am a terrible mother, somehow lacking any ability to comfort these much-loved children. I know that this will go on for hours. In fact, I’m not even sure that it will ever end. And even if they eventually fall asleep or have a happy playful interlude, I know this situation will recur again soon enough.
Over the last 25 years I have done my fair share of catastrophising, but I never realised it until I had children. Catastrophising is when you irrationally predict a negative outcome, imagine that it will be far worse than is realistic, and suffer the associated stress and anxiety despite nothing actually going wrong.
My first children were gorgeous twin girls. They were much loved and very cute, but let’s just say they had decided that sleep just wasn’t for them, and that most things in the world were worth having a good cry about. I think both my husband and I went a little crazy. The first three months consisted of cold cups of tea, takeaway pizzas, pacing the loungeroom at midnight (and 2am, 4am, 6am…), and not much sleep for any of us. At this point we admitted defeat, and after bursting into tears at my child health nurse visit we were admitted to a mother and baby unit at a local hospital. The idea was that we would stay for a few weeks and they would magically make our babies realise that sleep is awesome. By the end of our stay the twins’ love for sleep had only slightly improved, but it was a life-saver for us. We had a chance to sleep, and I had a life changing session with a psychologist.
Up until that point I had seen myself as an intelligent logical woman, and thought my reactions to situations were perfectly reasonable. I thought my feelings of desperation and helplessness when I had two screaming infants for hours on end were absolutely justified, and it never occurred to me to challenge them. The psychologist got me to talk through my thought process from when the twins started yet another screaming match. And it went something like this:
Oh no they’re crying again!
I have no idea how to make this stop.
Nothing I ever try works.
They are both going to be crying for hours.
I am the worst mother in the world.
And on and on this internal dialogue would go.
The psychologist challenged these thoughts. The reality was that about 50% of the time the twins would actually only scream for a short time, maybe 10-20 minutes. But my reaction was the same every time because I feared the worst. It is this imagining the worst that is referred to as catastrophising. If I approached each episode anew, then only 50% of the time would it end in a mess of tears and anxiety. The other 50% of the time it would be manageable. Instead of the way I was doing it, where 100% of the time it would be a disaster.
Overcoming catastrophising involves first recognising when it is occurring, and exactly what the catastrophe is that you imagine may happen. Then you can start to rationally question your thought process. You can ask yourself how likely it is to occur, how bad it would actually be if it were to occur, and how you might overcome it. This process sounds simple, but can dramatically change how you to respond to a situation which triggers catastrophising. It takes some effort to begin with, but with practice it soon become second nature.
Although there were many other ways I could have changed my thinking to improve my experience of that first 12 months of having the twins, I didn’t know about them at the time. And it was amazing how much better I handled difficult times just by altering that one thought process.
It was only some time later, once I had emerged from the newborn haze, that I realised how much I catastrophised in many aspects of life. When sitting exams I would imagine the not knowing any answers to the questions and failing dismally. In job interviews I would imagine being awkward and humiliated. Before work I would imagine the disasters and stresses that could occur. Before a musical performance I would imagine forgetting the notes and everyone laughing. When running late I would imagine friends being frustrated and annoyed. Even for something as simple as having guests around for dinner, I would imagine them not enjoying the food, the dessert not setting, and them being horrified at some mess or grime they might find.
I was experiencing all of the stress and anxiety associated with these possible eventualities, despite them never actually coming to pass. Now, some of these imagined events had a reasonable chance of actually occurring, and previously that had made it seem natural, and logical, and justifiable, and “normal”, for me to have these chains of thoughts. But now I realised that I would be much happier and have a more joyful life if I could change my thinking, and react to reality rather than some imagined possible future that may or may not occur.
I would challenge anyone, if they examine their thoughts closely enough, to not be able to find examples where they catastrophise. For some it may be rare and have little impact, and for some it may happen so frequently that they have an almost constant inner monologue of catastrophising. I encourage you to download my worksheet and use it to identify where you catastrophise and challenge your thinking. I’d love to hear how you go with this – send me an e-mail or let me know on my Facebook page.