Catastrophizing, Anxiety, and panic attacks

In getting myself ready to start writing for my blog, Prone to Hope, again, I decided to sample about twenty of my previous entries (some published, some still in draft form).  I observed that many of the entries mention negative self-talk, putting myself down as an idiot or a stupid failure.

For example, let’s say I forget that I made a commitment to a colleague. When my forgetfulness comes to light — to me, my colleague, and the group we’re a part of — I fear I will have irreversibly damaged my relationships with everyone present, especially the colleague I made the commitment to.

Or I damaged some starter plants for my garden. My internal voice says I’m stupid and a gardening failure. I fear I will ruin everything I’ll be planting that season.

Or I get nervous during a public presentation I am making. Time slows down, and I feel as if I am slurring my words. My mouth dries out.  I can hardly talk. I start sweating profusely. I fear my failure at presenting will bleed into the information I am trying to convey. I tell myself that those present won’t trust what I’m trying to get across.

These thoughts are called Catastrophizing. We all do it once in a while. They are irrational thoughts when your brain blows a mistake or flawed incident out of proportion.

For those with Anxiety disorders, catastrophizing can happen a lot. It happens to me a lot. And, if I’ve gone beyond the “simple” Anxiety, I may experience a panic attack. On top of the mental anguish I experience, the attack can put me in intense physical pain, force me to question my intellectual abilities, and make me feel alone.  Incredibly alone.

The physical pain manifests itself in three ways. The most common feeling is that I have the impression that a tightening, constrictive band is crushing my chest; it labors my breathing. The next level of pain feels like someone is choking me or my throat is collapsing upon itself. At its worse, the panic attack heaps on additional pain to one or both of the sensations above. Sometimes I feel as if every nerve in my body has frayed ends and is burning.

These are not happy, hopeful experiences. Isn’t the blog called Prone to Hope? Sure. You can read why on the “about Prone to Hope” page. The title of the blog has a double meaning. That’s very intentional.

Anyhow, back to the Catastrophizing and (sometimes resulting) panic attacks. There are several ways to handle the situation, many dependent on the stage at which you are experiencing Anxiety. As I noted in the previous entry, a podcast I’ve started listening to advised listeners to ask themselves, “How detrimental will the current issue you’re feeling Anxiety about be in six months?” Answer: “You probably won’t even remember it.” Similarly, sometimes you can try to control your breathing, deepen it and slow it down, and then ask yourself, “Why am I worrying?” Naming the issue for what it is, rather than the catastrophe you’re sure will follow, can sometimes force your brain to halt the irrational thinking and the bodily sensations that sometimes accompany it.

(By the way, there are plenty of other tactics you can employ to help you through this level of symptoms.)

Now, if you’re already in full Anxiety mode, a prior therapist of mine told me to imagine Anxiety as a being unto itself (ah, now you see why I capitalize the “A” in “Anxiety”), acknowledge It, and then let It do what It’s going to do. Even if that means you’ll experience some of the symptoms I describe above, it’s essential to not get into a tussle with Anxiety. It loves a fight and will make the situation worse.

Lastly, if you’re in full panic attack mode, I think it’s best to ask for help, remove yourself from a situation, and/or call it a sick day and head home. Chances are, throughout the day you’re going to feel unfocused, very tired, and possibly embarrassed (although you shouldn’t be, it’s an illness, after all).

Now, to end with hope. I am on medications to address my chronic Anxiety and Depression. They help a lot. I’m not experiencing Depression (and haven’t for years), and my Anxiety is at a much lower level than before I got to my current cocktail of meds. If I’m going through a rough patch (which I, unfortunately, am now), I seek the help of my therapist. Through talk therapy, I usually learn several tactics to help address the situation I am currently in.

I look forward to getting my mind to a different — healthier — place soon.

(If you find these posts helpful, I have nearly 150 others on Prone to Hope ( right now.)