Anxiety Symptom: Catastrophizing
(Amazing artwork by Natalie Dee)
I have a headache. The kind that’s in your eyebrows and teeth and makes your eyes water. I know it’s my sinuses. Everyone is telling me (including my own rational brain) that I have a sinus headache. But I don’t believe it. This voice inside me keeps saying, “You’ve had this headache for 3 weeks! If that doesn’t mean brain tumor, then I don’t know what does.”
While I like to think of my anxiety as (mostly) under control, like so many Anxiety Sisters, I still catastrophize—especially around health issues. I think of the worst possible scenario and make it not only real but also inevitable. In other words, we create our own catastrophes and react to them completely appropriately—which is to say we panic and have all kinds of anxiety-related symptoms.
Although most of my catastrophizing is around health-related issues, many people are triggered by money (e.g., a financial setback means they will end up broke and homeless) or by social situations (e.g., a casual remark means nobody likes them). Mags is triggered not by her own health but by the health of her children. When they get fevers, she stays next to them all night, making sure they are still breathing. While the rational part of her mind knows that a fever is no reason to panic, her anxiety causes her to catastrophize the situation, making the illness critical.
People who suffer from anxiety disorders are tricked by our brains (hyperactive amygdalae, to be more specific) into seeing hurricanes in a strong breeze, meningitis in a child’s fever, brain tumors in lingering headaches. To understand the power of the brain to create disaster, you only have to remember that, even with medical intervention and tried-and-true strategies, anxiety sufferers still believe our lives are in danger. To manage this disorder, we have to learn to live like everything is okay, even if we are convinced otherwise.
An Anxiety Sister asked me yesterday if she will ever be cured. I told her that I didn’t know—that everyone is different and some people do report becoming free of symptoms. But, in my case (and for so many fellow sufferers), my goal has been anxiety management. It’s not that I don’t have the anxious thoughts (see above!). Those will probably never go away, especially in connection to my health. But I’ve learned to respond to those thoughts in such a way as to prevent major anxiety symptoms. Using many techniques and medication, I can behave as though this headache is a result of impacted sinuses. I ask for reassurance (okay, I call Mags a lot) and carry on with my life, even if, not so deep down, I think I have a brain tumor. And, most importantly of all, I am trying to wean myself off googling my symptoms!
Anyone else deal with catastrophizing?