The Unhealthy Phenomenon of Catastrophizing (And How to Deescalate Your Anxieties)

Lately, I have been falling into a trap of overestimating the importance of negative events in my life. I have been engaging in something called, “catastrophizing,” and I know that I am not alone in this. It is frighteningly easy to have a very narrow perception of what is significant in college. This makes it so much easier to place too much importance on things that would otherwise be not as critical. This has caused me to overthink just about everything in my life, especially when I am stressed. All of a sudden, every little inconvenience causes me unhealthy amounts of worrying and anxiety.

I am taking an intro to psychopharmacology class where we are currently learning about how chronic stress impacts the brain. With repeated stress and pressure, we overstimulate our hippocampus (a part of your brain critical in regulating stress) with cortisol (a hormone released when you are stressed), which can become toxic over time. This continuous bathing of your hippocampus with cortisol wears away your hippocampus’s ability to, essentially, put the brakes on relieving stress and anxiety. This, in effect, makes you less able to calm down. This negatively impacts your ability to cope and presents a negative feedback cycle in which you become less and less able to regulate your stress the more you experience stressful events. I believe this is responsible for why college students often catastrophize many things in their lives, as a result of the constant and chronic stress we are under.

If I do poorly on a test, I immediately jump to the conclusion that I won’t be able to get into the graduate school that I want. If I don’t get that summer internship, I believe that my entire future has been jeopardized. If I fall short on my weekly budget, I become extremely scared about how I will support myself in the future. I could go on and on about how many daily life situations cause me intense anxiety. With a constant influx of stress, I find myself getting sick constantly. As I’m writing this, I am still sick with the same bug that I’ve been dealing with for two weeks. Being sick has caused me to call out sick for work, it has reduced my ability to focus in class, and it has made me less motivated in general. This is another way in which chronic stress induces negative feedback cycles in your life. With increased amounts of stress and hypersensitivity to stress, your body’s immune system can become weak, making you more perceptive to illness and therefore less able to deal with the events causing you stress.

I wish that I had a definitive solution to this. Unfortunately, there is no be-all-end-all cure for dealing with catastrophizing and chronic stress. College is a petri dish for stress, and it can often be hard to find a life outside of your classes. However, I think that is very important to have a balanced life which will help decrease your stress. While managing class, a job, extracurriculars, friends, and family may seem daunting, having at least one non-school related responsibility can give you a greater perspective on what is important in the real world. I say this as someone who has too many responsibilities on my plate, but I would rather have too many than none. Working a part-time job has given me an opportunity to be more independent and develop a sense of what the real world has in store. Volunteering in labs relevant to my field of study has prepared me for the future and given me experience that, in some instances, will be more important than my grades when applying to graduate schools.

Where I have fallen short is connecting with my family and friends. It is easy to put everything on pause for school or work or other responsibilities. However, developing a strong support network can have a hugely positive impact on reducing your stress levels. Talking to my parents, my brothers, and my friends reminds me that, even if I fall short in my classes, I won’t lose those most important to me. Those around you can also view the problems that you are facing in a much different light than you can. These outsider perspectives can help you understand what is worth worrying about and what is something from which you can move on.

Catastrophizing and chronic stress in college students can limit our ability to see the bigger picture in life. There is a lot more in life than classes. Writing this, however, I know that I will still stress over my exams and homework. A little bit of stress is actually very helpful in succeeding. When it becomes dangerous is when that stress completely takes over your life. It is important to find balance in your life and that balance will be unique to every person.

I encourage you to think about what is important in your life right now that has absolutely nothing to do with school or work. Write those things down. Focus on amplifying their importance in your everyday life. Working through stressors in your life will be less traumatic when you are aware of the positives that make life enjoyable.

 

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