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How to avoid catastrophizing
Lessons from a ~mostly~ relaxing cabin weekend.
The Sweet Dumb Brain cabin retreat is officially over, and Becca and I have deemed it a success. There was so much about our weekend that was relaxing, from the daily hikes and sounds of the nearby creek to the homemade dinners and nights by the crackling fire.
And then there were the topics of conversation that were less than relaxing: Parenting worries. Coronavirus fears. Election uncertainty. Climate change.
Becca and I are both anxious people. It makes us good friends, because we can easily empathize with each other whenever our brains start to spiral. We often trade roles—I’ll be the worrier, while Becca reminds me to stay grounded; later, I’m the calm one, as she rattles off her fears.
Our worried thoughts thankfully didn’t interrupt the weekend too much. We still got lots of newsletter planning and brainstorming done, and enjoyed plenty of time outside, taking in the mountain views and breathing in the crisp air. Still, I couldn’t help but note that on this trip—during which we only had a few precious days together—we couldn’t fully escape the stressors of our daily lives.
It feels like we live in extra anxious times. It doesn’t take much for the biggest news stories—COVID-19, natural disasters, politics, the economy, gun violence, and so on—to put me into a doom-and-gloom mindset, and there’s been no shortage of news lately to provoke fearful thinking. Between the non-stop notifications from reputable news sources and the endless chatter on social media from less-reputable sources, there’s a constant, underlying din that makes it easy for my thoughts to spiral. Before I know it, I’m ruminating about the worst-case scenarios, holding tension in my body, and finding myself in a mental funk.
It’s no fun, and it’s no way to live life.
All of that tension became obvious this weekend. As Becca and I talked about our various fears, I could feel my already tense body getting tighter. Once we set those fears aside and eased into more relaxing conversation, my body started to unclench. I returned from North Georgia feeling lighter, and wanting to be more mindful about the stress I carry—not letting my brain go so quickly into catastrophizing mode.
Here are the key lessons we took away from our cabin weekend:
Limit social media and the news. When we arrived at the cabin, FOX News was on the TV. Nope. We turned off the television and kept it off for the rest of the trip. We both largely ignored social media, turned off news notifications on our phones, and used our laptops only for writing. It was glorious.
For me, news is a major source of anxiety, which is ironic, considering I’ve spent my entire career working as a journalist or training journalists. While I know that it would be irresponsible (and impossible) to block out the news in my daily life entirely, I do want to identify more ways to limit my intake of distressing world updates.
Get out of your head and into your body. We’d reached the point during our first evening in the cabin when it was time to call it a night. We were both yawning, but kept talking and watching the embers of the fire slowly die out. Instead of heading to bed, I began prattling off my freelance worries. I was talking in circles, and finding plenty of things to be negative about.
“Should we stretch?” asked Becca. Earlier in the day, we both chatted about how we wanted to stretch more regularly—how such a simple act could be so good for your body and mind. So we did. Almost immediately, my freelancing fears subsided. I focused on my tight hamstrings instead, and how good it felt to extend them after a long day of walking. Soon after, we went to bed. And I slept like a champ.
Talk it out, but be specific with your words. I don’t regret talking about my anxieties with Becca, and I know she’s glad that she was able to confide in me. The thing that made a big difference was whether we talked about specific fears versus overwhelming feelings. Whenever Becca mentioned a particular parenting dilemma that she was worried about, I was able to give her direct advice or ask questions that helped to provide clarity. Likewise, she was able to help me when I offered up a definite problem that I wanted to address. But in the moments when we overgeneralized—There’s no way freelancing will work out! My aches and pains only get worse! It seems like the world is doomed!—our conversations were less productive and more discouraging.
Do something to get into the present. Despite being friends for nearly two decades (oof we’re old!), this was the first trip that Becca and I had taken together, just the two of us. Since we live in different states and only get to see each other a few times a year, this vacation was especially precious. It would have been a shame if either of us let our worries about the future distract us from the beauty of the present. Thankfully, we were both great about pointing out small things to admire. From vibrant moss on tree stumps to funny knick knacks in the cabin, we noted plenty of opportunities to appreciate our surroundings—and were able to stay in the moment.
Nature is magic. It’s easy to get outside when the weather is good and your surroundings are beautiful. Becca and I were blessed with a weekend of sunshine, during which we got to listen to the sounds of a rushing creek, enjoy the warmth of blazing fires, and challenge ourselves by hiking up steep trails with rewarding views. Our minds and our bodies were so very happy, and we both commented on how we wanted to spend time in nature more often.
I often have to remind myself that conditions don’t have to be perfect in order to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors. A cold walk can be invigorating. A sweaty jog can be wonderfully exhausting. An afternoon in the rain can be cozy—especially once you get inside and dry off. Being outdoors can boost your energy and creativity, and get you out of a mental rut. For me, it’s the perfect way to reset my brain on those extra anxious days.
I’m sad our cabin weekend is over, but I’m grateful for the lessons that I get to carry with me. If you’re feeling especially stressed out lately, I hope you too get to enjoy some quality time in nature with a good friend soon.
p.s. Are you a catastrophizer? What helps you to keep your worries in perspective? Whether you’re feeling anxious about coronavirus, the upcoming presidential election, or something entirely different, I would love to hear what’s weighing on your mind and how you’re keeping sane. Respond to this email or send a reply to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll include some of my favorites in Thursday’s subscriber-only issue.
You don’t have to be anxious alone!
I know I’ve mentioned before how much I appreciate hearing from My Sweet Dumb Brain readers. One of those readers is Rebecca, whose latest email ended with, “Thank you for this amazing community you’re building!”
She’s right. The Sweet Dumb Brain community IS amazing, and it’s so fun to hear from everyone in the subscriber-only issues that come out on Thursdays. I have a feeling this week’s responses will be especially helpful. If you want to receive it—and I hope you do!—just hit the subscribe button below.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who not only reminded me to stretch but also made me waffles this weekend. Y’all, I’m convinced she’s a literal angel on earth.