The Curse of Catastrophic Thinking

I was left to take charge of a cat for a couple of days recently. The cat stayed in his location and I had to go over and organise the feeding arrangements. 

Here’s a little background information. He was a house cat; he’s become an outdoor cat and he’s developed into quite a rat/mouse catcher. I was not going to stay in a place where I might be presented with such presents. So, I agreed to pop in instead.

The cat was pleased to see me and to accept the treats I always bring (could that be why he is always so welcoming?); I fed him and decided to stay around for a couple of hours so he didn’t get lonely. He left the house through the cat flap minutes after I arrived and only returned as I decided I really had to get going. I spotted him flash by into the house through the porch, just as I was about to close the front door.

I left. I’d done my duty and the cat would be fine for the next 24 hours I hoped.

It was hot and I soon began to have a niggling worry around a “what if” scenario. The worst example of that was: “What if a delivery driver popped a parcel in the porch and, not realising that the cat had popped in, closed the porch door and the cat was left to suffocate on what was turning out to be a boiling hot day?” 

I could feel my anxiety levels rising. Should I go back and check and put some water down just in case? Should I kidnap the cat (he wouldn’t have outside space with me, but a cat litter could be provided) or should I relocate for the time he was alone, cancelling my plans for the sake of something that my overactive mind was telling me might happen. The further I drove, the noisier my mind became, giving me all varieties of worsening scenarios, none of which ended well. 

In the end, faced with so much choice and so little decision-making ability because of the problem, I did nothing. I put metaphorical lid on the little niggle of what might happen and managed to get on with my daily living. 

The next day, shortly before the cat’s keepers returned, I texted them to check all was well. “We’re minutes from home,” they replied happily. 

“Phew,” I said. “That means you can make sure the cat hasn’t suffocated on the porch because he’s been locked in by a driver and has no water and couldn’t get out.”

That silenced them. I later learned (after they’d found the cat safe and well inside their shuttered and cool house) that such a thought had not occurred to them. Then, for the few minutes before they arrived at their home, it became their sole preoccupation.

That is the trouble with catastrophic (ironic in this particular case) thinking. It can take over a person, blocking all usual rational and reasonable thoughts until they’re a mass of feelings and emotions that have built up and flourished way beyond their mental control.

As the cat’s carers illustrate, this is not something that happens to everyone. In my case it occurred because I was taking responsibility for a beloved pet and was fearful of anything going wrong. No doubt that comes from my own background upbringing and fears and worries when I was growing up. 

I am not alone, as can be seen from official reaction to the pandemic of the past 18 months or so. There’s been a lot of catastrophic thinking going on there and it’s by no means all come to pass.

For example, the data experts – scientists we’re told are reasonable and rational and not inclined to hysteria – seemed to become more and more hysterical as the days went on. It is/was a new and particularly deadly virus and of course there were huge concerns. But dissent or “voices of reason” seemed to have been elbowed out. There have been times, during lockdown, when some have felt our scientific experts were less the voices of reason, and more the voices of doom. 

Catastrophic thinking can be catching, you see, and that is why we need to be so careful. It can have a bad enough effect on an individual’s mental health but imagine how damaging it can be as a collective feeling for, say, a whole country.

Take, for example, the wearing of a mask. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were told masks were not necessary. They would not protect us. Then, gradually, the advice changed to using them to protect not only ourselves but others. And so on, until it became so necessary to our alleged wellbeing that one could argue: “If I go out without a mask, I may either die or be responsible for another person’s death.” That, surely, is catastrophic thinking at its worst. And not just for one person but for millions of us. Rightly or wrongly – I don’t know – we have been terrified into submission. 

I take some comfort in knowing that this way of thinking does not have to be contagious, nor does it have to pass down from one family member to another. The key is to become aware of your own thought process. A particular benefit of becoming a thoughtful and aware adult is that you get to choose how you manage life’s unpredictable events.  

The best way to take any decision is through use of the rational and reasonable methods you have – hopefully – acquired in your journey as an adult, adding a touch of emotions into the mix to check what your gut reaction feels. 

Catastrophic thinking is tiring and can keep you in your “freeze” mode long after it’s necessary. It is unhealthy and undoubtedly detracts from the pleasures of life. In the case of the cat and me, what could have been a mutually beneficial exchange was at risk of turning into a dreadful drama. And what would be the point of that? For best results, keep that in mind.

Photo 2 by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash