Decatastrophizing Practice

A bit of practice on dealing with negative situations.

More practice inspired by the book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson. Today's focus will be decatastrophizing, as described by Robertson below:

Sticking to the facts can, by itself, often reduce your anxiety. Cognitive therapists use the neologism “catastrophizing,” or dwelling on the worst-case scenario, to help explain to clients how we project our values onto external events. They turn the noun “catastrophe” into a verb to help clients remember that viewing events in this way is actually an activity they’re engaged in. Catastrophizing is also a form of rhetorical hyperbole, or exaggeration. An event like losing your job is not inherently catastrophic; we don’t just passively perceive how bad it is. Rather, we actively catastrophize it, turning it into a catastrophe by imposing a value judgment upon it that blows things out of proportion.
In cognitive therapy, we learn to take greater ownership of or responsibility for the catastrophic value judgments that distress us. Modern cognitive therapists advise their clients to describe events in more down-to-earth language, like the Stoics before them. They call it “decatastrophizing” when they help clients downgrade their perception of a situation from provoking anxiety to something more mundane and less frightening. For instance, Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, advised that clients suffering from anxiety should write “decatastrophizing scripts” in which they describe distressing events factually, without strong value judgments or emotive language: “I lost my job and now I’m looking for a new one” rather than “I lost my job and there’s nothing I can do about it—it’s just a total disaster!” Think about it: when you’re distressed, don’t you tend to exaggerate and use vivid, emotional language to describe things, both to yourself and other people? Decatastrophizing involves reevaluating the probability and severity of something bad happening and framing it in more realistic terms. Beck asks his clients, “Would it really be as terrible as you think?” Catastrophizing often seems to involve thinking, “What if?” What if the worst-case scenario happens? That would be unbearable. Decatastrophizing, on the other hand, has been described as going from “What if?” to “So what?”: So what if such-and-such happens? It’s not the end of the world; I can deal with it.
Another common method of decatastrophizing is for cognitive therapists to ask clients repeatedly, “What next?” Mental images of feared events often rapidly escalate to the worst, most anxiety-provoking part and then remain glued there as if the upsetting experience were somehow timeless. In reality, though, everything has a before, during, and after phase. Everything changes with time, and experiences come and go. Anxiety can often be reduced simply by moving the image past the worst point and imagining, in a realistic and noncatastrophic way, what’s most likely to happen in the hours, days, weeks, or months that follow. Reminding himself of the transience of events is one of Marcus’s favorite strategies, as we’ll see in later chapters. One way of doing that is to ask yourself, “What, realistically, will most likely happen next? And then what? And then what?” And so on.

For this session, I'll consider some hypothetical scenarios that someone is already experiencing and then keep asking "then what?" type questions in a dialog format. Nothing here is intended as specific legal or financial advice. I might try a different exercise oriented around considering the likelihood of some bad event happening next time.

Scenario 1: You lose your job and are in a situation where you have to change careers.

Anxious Person (A): This is a disaster. I've lost my job and have to change careers. I don't know how I'll pay the rent, I don't know how I'll pay my bills, I don't know how I'll survive, I don't know what to do with my life. I'm completely ruined! 😫

Stoic Person (S): What's next?

A: Well, I'll have to figure out how much my savings will hold out.

S: And then what?

A: I'll also have to think about downsizing my living space and seeing where I can cut expenses.

S: And then what?

A: And then I'll have to figure out what I might do for work instead, what sort of job I might like, and how to get it.

S: And then what?

A: You like that question, don't you? And then I'll actually have to try getting a new job in that field, hoping that my savings can carry through until I can do that, or else maybe taking some temporary job in the mean time to carry me through.

S: And then what?

A: Oy. And then I'll have to actually start working in that new job and supporting myself.

S: So if I understand correctly, you have an unfortunate situation on your hands. In order to get out of it, you need to take stock of your resources, reduce your expenses where possible, and formulate a plan of action. Is that right?

A: Yes...

S: Okay. You're not in the greatest position to be in...

A: You can say that again!

S: ...but it sounds like you have a lot of room to take action to improve and work on your situation. You're not helpless due to illness, and you're not dying from a terminal disease.

A: You're minimizing it!

S: No, I'm putting it in perspective. You've had a major career setback, and that's unfortunate, but lots of people have those and come out okay.

A: But I've been working in my field for years!

S: Yes, and you have the good fortune, in terms of your health, to likely have many more years to dedicate to a different field. You also have the good fortune to have savings. Not everyone is as lucky as you.

A: scoffs As lucky!

S: unperturbed As lucky, yes. You don't feel lucky right now, I get that, but that's because you're only focusing on one aspect of your situation, and not seeing things in the bigger picture.

Scenario 2: You do a financial audit and realize that you have tons of debt.

A: I looked at my finances and realized that I have tons of debt that I can never pay off! It's such a disaster!

S: What's next?

A: I don't know. I don't think it's solvable.

S: Financial problems are solvable.

A: But you don't understand! I've got tons of debt! I can't pay it off!

S: Even if it's a lot, it can be managed. What kind of debt is it?

A: All kinds!

S: That's not very specific. What specific kinds?

A: Credit card debt, student loans etc.

S: Okay. Do you know what the interest rates on the credit cards are?

A: No.

S: So what's next?

A: I don't know!

S: Figure out the answer to my question about interest rates.

A: Why?

S: Because then you can figure out where to target your payments. It's pretty generic advice to say that you should target the highest interest credit cards first.

A: Okay.

S: Are the student loans on a payment plan?

A: Um, I dunno, I mean, I pay them?

S: Are they federal loans or private loans?

A: Uh, I don't know, they're student loans?

S: demonstrating the virtue of Stoic patience Okay, well, there are various options for dealing with student loans, but the options you have depend on the type of loan it is and other details like when it was taken out and so on. So what's next?

A: Get all that information together?

S: Yup. What else?

A: I don't know.

S: Well, part of the issue of having a lot of debt is the ratio of that debt to your income. You can have a big number in terms of debt, but if your income is super high then it's not such a big deal.

A: But my income isn't super high!

S: Right, I figured. But is there anything you could do to make it somewhat higher?

A: Hmm, I suppose there are various classes and stuff I could take to increase my earning power.

S: So what's next?

A: Look into that and think about my options?

S: Yup.

I ran a bit over the time I gave myself for this post, but might try more next time.