Human beings are hardwired to assume that we can count on life being a certain way. But as we constantly learn and relearn, life is never as predictable as we would like it to be.
Nobody knows this better than someone who is living with a chronic condition. Symptoms or flare-ups may suddenly come out of nowhere. Medications may work one way and then work another way, or become less effective. Small changes in normal regimen can have big results. Healthcare providers, or healthcare coverage, may change unexpectedly.
So you might ask, isn’t it a good idea to be proactive?
Yes and no. Yes, having your bases covered is a good thing (we’ll come back to that later). However, walking around with a constant focus on the uncertainty of life can leave you looking over your shoulder, wondering if the “other shoe is going to drop” at some point.
Here’s what can happen with our expectations. First, you might find yourself expecting the worst because that way, when something bad does happen, you won’t be disappointed. That’s called superstitious thinking. Secondly, you might be so primed to expect the unexpected that have your mind and your emotions on red alert, so that anything out of the ordinary, minor or major, sets you off! In other words, you can be so focused on bad things happening that everything that happens start to look like, well, a pretty bad thing. As a result, you mind may turn everything into a catastrophe!
Here’s an example. A client who I will call Sally told me about “freaking out” over a message her doctor had left after a recent check-up, asking her to return for what sounded like additional testing. “I panicked,” she said. “I just knew there had to be a problem. He had never called me like this before. So I went through all kinds of scary stories.”
Another client, who I will call Mike, experienced a symptom that has sometimes, though now always, been a signal that he was about to have a flare-up. “I got so scared that I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I made it bigger and bigger to the point that I was afraid I might be making it worse than it was. Finally, I didn’t know how I felt anymore.”
There is a fine line between being prepared for the unexpected and expecting the worst. Uncertainty can be a trigger for fear. And when the fear takes over, your mind can just “go to town” on creating scary scenarios. With all of these scenarios leading down one winding road:
And when you catastrophize, you create unnecessary stress, which makes things feel even more catastrophic. See how that cycle works?
Here are some ideas to help you to stay in the here and now, and avoid creating catastrophes where they don’t exist.
Ask yourself: Is this a real catastrophe or does it feel like one? Keep in mind that when your mind tells your body that a catastrophe has occurred, then your body reacts accordingly. All those emotions get released – like fear and anxiety and anger – along with the physical reactions that you experience when you are under stress. Even if the catastrophe is not actually a catastrophe, your body can’t distinguish between a little event, a big event, or a non-event. When your stress alarms are going off, your body doesn’t know the difference between dinner being ten minutes late and an earthquake. So it just reacts like the sky is falling, whether it is or not.
It can help to get some perspective on the situation by engaging your mind. You might try evaluating whatever has happened on a scale of one to ten, with one being an annoyance (like a late meal) to ten being life-threatening (that earthquake). Whew, don’t you feel better already? Hold that number in your mind. You’ll need it later.
Ask yourself: Do I have enough information to know whether this is a catastrophe or not? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. To myself, that is. When we don’t have enough information, our minds have a unique way of filling in the gaps, mostly with scary stories. And our minds can certainly manufacture some scary stories! Some of these stories may be purely imagined, others may be recycled from the past. Either way, the story may or may not fit the current situation. Start by telling yourself what you know and what you don’t know. What are the facts here? Do you have enough to go on at this point? Give yourself a break, enough with the stories.
Ask yourself: How have I dealt with situations like this in the past? Chances are you have felt this way before. If so, is there something you did, or that someone did for you, that helped you to deal with catastrophes – the real ones or the ones that you feared – in the past? A good healthcare team? Your support system? Your spiritual connection? Helping yourself to calm down? Maybe just the passage of time? Review your strengths and your coping skills and see what you can call upon to help you this time around.
Ask yourself: What is the worst thing that could happen? I am not encouraging you to do more catastrophizing. But sometimes a situation feels like a catastrophe because, well, it just feels like the worse thing in the world. But is it? This kind of goes back to that scale of one to ten that you did a couple of steps ago. So often, when you allow your mind to follow a fear to the logical conclusion, or potential conclusion, you may discover that you don’t end up at the end of the world. Sure, some situations may be severe, if not life-threatening. Others may be uncomfortable, or scary, or a major inconvenience. But letting yourself define the possible outcome also helps you to decide whether it is really a catastrophe or not. Along with helping you to decide what actions you need to take.
Remind yourself: I don’t have control over the future, but I have resources to meet the challenges. In any scary situation, it is inevitable that the control issue is going to come up. In fact, the root of any catastrophe is often the question of whether we can stop something from happening or not. I am not suggesting that you should sit still and let bad things happen. But I am suggesting that we aren’t in control of everything that happens. You might even say that we aren’t in control of most things that happen. Part of the stress may be the assumption that should be in control. Let go of that part of the fight. It’s not worth it. That clears up your mind to focus on what you CAN do. And leaves with more energy to do it.
Take action. Once you have gone through these steps, you should be in a better position to decide what actions are available to you. Keep in mind that the “doing” may or may not be “fixing” the situation. But action might also mean getting emotional support. Getting more information. Using some of those ways of dealing with scary situations that you have worked in the past. The point is once you are that you have cleared you mind and done some de-catastrophizing, you are in a better position to look at your options.
Have a plan in place if a catastrophe does occur: Have an action plan that you can rely to help you to handle the unexpected. So here we are back at the beginning. One of the best ways to keep your stress level down is to have an action plan in place. Know the people you can call when you need information or help – healthcare professionals, other advisors, family members, friends, members of the clergy – and of course your coping skills.
Sure, bad things happen. But as they say, the right tools for the right job. Starting with keeping the uncertainties of live in perspective!