Is anxiety all in your head? No.
Not all of it is in your head. Many of you reading this have real, physical, practical difficulties that make you anxious.
But, if we examine anxiety closely, we have to admit at least some of it is in our heads. Michel de Montaigne, French Renaissance Philosopher, once said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.” What he's talking about is the anxious art of catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is imagining an outcome of a situation far worse than it will actually be (or even could actually be).
Since I'm the king of catastrophizing, I'll give you an example from my own life. I was once invited to preach a youth winter retreat in the mountains. All I was told is that I would be given my own cabin, be preaching 3 times, and would be paid. That's all I knew for sure.
Then, I googled the retreat center I'd be staying at. I saw that they offered snowboarding. I then imagined the teenagers begging me to come snowboarding, which I don't generally do. I imagined trying to show off on the snowboard, losing control, and then breaking my leg!
The story then took a darker turn, one of me being stuck in the mountains having to wait hours for medical help in excruciating pain. Finally, in my day dream, I was admitted to a hospital but none of my family could come see me since I was out west and they all lived in Indiana.
This story, a story I thought up, had me in a fiercely anxious frenzy (when you catastrophize, the brain produces adrenaline as if the tragedy is actually happening because it cannot tell the difference). It was a terrible misfortune...that never happened.
It couldn't have even happened as, once we got to the retreat center, the youth pastor ran through the list of weekend activities and snowboarding wasn't even on the list.
Yet, the images I conjured up were so powerful that, if given the chance, I would have totally backed out of that preaching gig.
Catastrophizing is painful because it's momentary atheism. It's as painful as atheism. It's literally a momentary glimpse into what a life with no hope would be like. It's imagining a future without any help or grace or power from God.
It's forgetting that, wherever life takes us, God comes with us. And what is God like?
Bless the Lord...who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. - Psalm 103:2-5
There are a few ways to deal with catastrophizing. I really hope to write about those in a future post. For now, however, I want you to do this:
1. Identify if you indeed do catastrophize.
Do you tend to imagine the worst possible outcome first? For example, if you're on a plane and you hit a little turbulance is your immediate response to imagine a crash?
2. Identify why you catastrophize.
Do you have an overactive imagination? Do you have a tragedy in your past that still haunts you? Do you have a particular phobia that is severe?
3. Identify when you catastrophize.
When do you tend to imagine bad endings? In which situations does your mind run wild with theories?
Clarity kills anxiety. Take today to try to get clear on your catastrophizing.