Anxiety Symptom: Catastrophizing

Abs - February 27, 2018
(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?

16 thoughts on “Anxiety Symptom: Catastrophizing

  1. I do this and have gotten much worse since my father in law passed away a year and a half ago from lung cancer! I have many of the same symptoms even though mine are related to my under-rated thyroid disease. But it still is constant in my mind that something is severely wrong and I will die before my children are grown.

    1. Gretchen,
      You are definitely part of our tribe/sisterhood. I often worry about dying before my children are grown too. I try to give myself a lot of compassion around these feelings, especially after a death of someone close. I let myself know that this feeling is connected to my sense of loss and fear, and that is ok. I can tolerate that fear and give it space. At the same time, I remind myself that I am ok and this feeling will pass. Much love, Mags

    2. Oh yes, have suffered for many years. I have ‘managed’ to keep moving forward. On some days I don’t know how I do, but I do. Even if it’s by the most smallest amount. Thanks for your page and your sense of humor!

  2. Every day and especially when I’m sick with something I can’t figure out. I chuckled at your comment about a three day head must mean a brain tumor. I’ve been having that thought recently even though I know it’s sinuses. I’ll almost talk myself into asking for an MRI then I talk myself away from the ledge.

    So glad to have you guys. I had to make myself get off Facebook (because of anxiety of course) so I’m glad to still be with you all here!

    1. I could have written the statement myself… I have panic attacks at just the thought of illness in me or my family and I avoid the gp at all costs if I can unless I really have to go. I have always feared dying before my kids are self sufficient and all the images it conjure up in my head are enough to send any layman into a spiral of panic and despair! I do give myself space and time with my feelings and I have to just keep repeating to myself that they are just feelings because of the scary thoughts I bombard myself with. My amygdala is super sensitive I wish it had an on/off switch!

  3. Rgsullivan13,

    We understand how anxiety provoking Facebook can be. Thank you for your comment and come visit us here whenever you can!
    mags and abs

  4. I have been experiencing the anxiety loop. Mine is catastrophizing every little health ailment for myself and my kids. I just left my child’s pediatrician where i begged them to give her an MRI because she had one headache and she told me her eye looked funny. I immediately believe she has DIPG, a rare, incurable brain cancer. The pediatrician refused. I understand, but diagnostic tests are the only thing that seems to give me comfort. I feel like this anxiety is a never ending loop for me, finding out one thing is fine only to worry about another….

  5. Hi,
    We know the loop well, and it is really tough to break. Give yourself a lot of self talk and feel free to ask your doctor, your partner, your friends, us, etc. if you are being reasonable or not….sometimes a reality check is helpful. And see talking to yourself, letting yourself know that this feeling will pass. The thing that calms our brains the most is really meditation. We both struggle with sustaining a practice but when we are able, we really try because it helps. You can do a guided meditation (we have one under podcasts and under resources on our website). Much love…Mags and Abs

  6. Thank you for this. I am currently feeling the same exact symptoms – headache in the eyebrow, etc and doing my best not to think the absolute worst but secretly am. I wish I didn’t but reading this has made me feel somewhat better. Thank you!

  7. My husband had an aneurysm that they coiled 7 years ago. There was a tiny space that didn’t get filled. They do an mri every year to make sure things are stable, and as soon as the appointment is made my anxiety starts ramping up. If there has been a change, they will have to add more coil. That happened the first time, but he’s been stable ever since. Knowing any kind of test is coming for someone I love sends me right over the edge.

  8. Have felt this way before…glad I am not alone…I am always trying new ways to manage these symptoms…getting better at it

  9. I have cervicogenic headache from an injury to the C2 and 3 vertebrae. It runs from my neck to the side of my head. But my anxiety says it’s a heart attack or tumor. I know the feeling well. It will make my arm numb sometimes so to me it’s a stroke. Until I got anxiety 8 years ago any pains that I had was just another pain. Now it’s debilitating.

  10. oh gawd can I ever relate! Especially at night when it’s dark and my mind just goes.
    It feels like I am in a mental MRI all the time and my brain is scanning for stuff. I have learned over the years to ignore that voice so I am the one who will push myself harder when I do not feel good (and then discover later I really was sick when everyone else around me gets sick too).

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