The anxious parent: How to stop catastrophizing under stress

Eden is such a random wee article. She’s always been one to keep us guessing.

Yesterday, I caught her red-handed with a spoon and a jar of chocolate spread. Let’s just say that wasn’t much left to go round. I wasn’t really bothered- that’s normal kid behaviour right? I told her off, then smiled to myself when her head was turned.

But a few minutes later, I heard a loud gagging noise coming from the kitchen. I rushed in, only to find her with a blue tinged powdery substance all around her mouth.

Judging by the sounds she was making and the grotesque grimace on her face, she had eaten something that definitely did not taste as good as the Nutella.

True to form, my mind instantly went down the proverbial rabbit hole. Immediately the catastrophic thought came, ‘She’s swallowed a dishwasher tablet. I’m going to have to bring her to hospital. She’s poisoned herself.’

I forced myself to take deep breath, step back from the drama unfolding in my head, and deduce what had actually happened. 

‘Eden, what did you eat?’

Between the ‘bleurrrggghhhs’ I just about managed to make out a garbled – ‘salt.’- 

‘Show me.’

She pointed sheepishly, and sure enough, on the table, a bowl of blueberries were disintegrating beneath an enormous mountain of salt. Well, that explained the blue paste.

(Sigh of relief.) 

True, salt isn’t the best, but it’s better than corrosive chemicals. No hospital trip required today.

‘Eden, will you ever eat salt again?’

‘No,mummy.’

(I didn’t think so.)

Crisis averted. Until the next time.

I think most parents would panic a little in this situation. But I have to admit; I am a person who all too easily envisages the worst possible outcome. On a good day, I’m a measured troubleshooter. On a bad day, I’m an anxious catastrophizer.

“ca·​tas·​tro·​phize | \ kə-ˈta-strə-ˌfīz”

to imagine the worst possible outcome of an action or event to think about a situation or event as being a catastrophe or having a potentially catastrophic outcome

Experts think people like me unconsciously learn to envisage the worst possible outcome because it allows for the greatest relief of anxiety when we are reassured.
And boy, did I feel a sense of relief when I realised the dishwasher tablet in my mind was in fact just plain old salt.

To be fair, considering all possibilities in a stressful scenario is not a destructive thing if you can think through them logically. But if you continually allow your mind to wander around in a warren of uncertainties, you will waste a lot of time and energy meandering within a maze of potential futures. 

Here are four strategies I’ve been practising to beat this unhelpful anxious habit!

  1. Acknowledge uncertainty

It’s often in vague, ambiguous or uncertain situations that catastrophic thinking can take hold.

  • If you get a letter from the hospital asking you to return for more tests but giving no other information, that could spark excessive worry.
  • If a friend sends you a vague text like, ‘we need to talk,’ you could begin imagining all kinds of scenarios.
  • If you are thrust into a global pandemic, and you don’t know when it will be safe for normal life will resume, that uncertainty will be a huge source of stress. 

This might seem counterintuitive, but actually one of the best things to do is acknowledge the uncertainty before you.

2. Determine the facts

The key thing here, though, is to start with the facts of the situation, rather than the feelings the situation has generated.

e.g. Fact: We are in the midst of a pandemic, and we don’t know when, or if ever, we will resume a ‘normal’ way of life.

e.g. Feeling: I feel like this situation going on and on and it will never end. Everyone I love is in danger. I feel paralysed and helpless. It’s making me so stressed out!

Stick to the facts! And refuse to go any further with it until you… 

3. Take a deep breath (or ten!)

When you concentrate fully on breathing slowly, physiologically this will stop your thoughts in their tracks, slow your heart rate down, and stimulate your body’s parasympathetic (or calming) response.

Now you’ll be able to think more logically and realistically about the situation that is in front of you.

4. Take your ‘worry energy’ and invest it somewhere else 

Have you ever noticed that anxiety and excitement feel kind of similar? Both involve nervous energy, tummy butterflies, and sweaty palms. So instead of using that energy on negative thinking, why not gather it up into something positive and throw it into something productive. In other words, turn those jitters into jazz hands.

Paint, write, walk, play sport, do DIY or gardening- whatever will help to keep you grounded, use that energy creatively, and feed your soul at the same time.

So if you’re a ‘better safe than sorry’ kind of person, I hear you!

If you’re reading this and can’t identify with it at all, then so much the better.

But if at any point you find yourself feeling ‘sorry’ more often than you do ‘safe,’ it might be helpful to remember that:

  • Things often aren’t as bad as they first seem
  • We can control how we respond to stress, and
  • Most situations can be pivoted in some way towards the positive. 

When you’re hit with stress, will you choose to see the dishwasher tablet or the plain old salt first? I’m going for salt from now on!

H x

Published by Hilary

Mum of two girls 👩‍👧‍👧 positive inspiration 💡 parenting 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 health 🏃‍♀️ life 💓 faith 📖

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