I recently had to go to a court hearing, nothing criminal, but procedural, and the anticipation of this hearing drove me into a complete panic attack, similar I think to the way that Joyce experienced the anticipation of her son’s last parole hearing. I experienced catastrophic thinking and the anxiety left me barely able to function. I had fallen into the abyss. Not just for a day or two but for weeks as the date approached.
My attorney had another client for a hearing right after mine and even in my anxiety state; I noticed that woman sat reading a magazine, apparently calm and relaxed. I managed to get through the hearing, testify what I had to and then leave the building, but I realized I actually hadn’t heard much of the event because I was so terrified, in an All or Nothing state so intense I could barely breathe much less hear what was going on around me. In thinking over this traumatic event in my life and how I reacted to it in a panic, I started to try to make some sense of this.
Trauma, of any kind, creates huge changes in our physiology, thinking, emotional responses, and personal beliefs. For example those who lose an infant to SIDS, they may believe their ability to protect and care for the innocent might come into question. They may also feel (and, subsequently, believe) that they “Did Something” to deserve such an unimaginable loss. They may also move into an emotional/spiritual space where they literally hate God (or, Whomever).
For those who experience a sudden natural catastrophe, the effects are the same. Everything comes into question – and, it’s 100% “normal” for a human being to experience these phases in their recovery processes.
I highly recommend reading, On Death And Dying, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to learn about how human beings process loss. In fact, this book should be a mandatory course in every public freshman high school class. By knowing the series of emotional turmoil that we fall into when we are stressed or grieving from a loss or potential loss we can mitigate some of the pain and damages as we process the events.
With long-term trauma, which can be either physical and/or emotional abuse, the effects created are quite different and become more along the lines of “programmed behaviors,” rather than typical responses to a catastrophe. Long-term traumas include domestic abuse/violence, family dysfunction, etc. Particularly for children, long-term trauma creates a host of flawed beliefs and behavioral responses. Catastrophic Thinking (All-Or-Nothing, aka AON) is created by and within a dynamic of long-term dysfunction, and I feel confident to write about this with the insight of experience, rather than textbook studies and statistics – I have lived a life of Catastrophic Thinking as a direct result of the dynamics of alcoholism that I was raised in, and also with the abusive partners that I chose and toxic friends that I surrounded myself with for well over a half century.
AON developed as a coping mechanism, and later evolved into a pattern of predictable behaviors for me. The example of how this ran in my behavior, I’ll give the example of a flat tire. In the World of Trauma, a flat tire isn’t a simple mechanical failure. It’s a catastrophe that’s going to kill us because………..the tire goes flat, I’m stuck on the side of the road, I’m vulnerable, someone is going to stop to help, but they’ll end up being a serial killer, I can’t protect myself (because I couldn’t protect myself from my abuser, or being neglected), and so forth……the flat tire is simply a mechanical failure. That’s all.
The tire is neutral – it neither knows nor cares about my personal issues, whether I can afford to replace it, or where it gives out. The tire doesn’t have an agenda. It’s just out lived its use, and that’s it. When an emotionally centered and balanced individual experiences a flat tire, they pull off of the road, put on their flashers, get out and change the tire, drive to the nearest tire place, and have it either repaired or replaced. But, in the World Of Trauma, it’s just another example of how little control I have over everything, and it further feeds the Shame Monkey because, regardless of my good intentions or determination, I cannot prevent Life from happening and I had been mandated (as per the childhood trauma and family dysfunction) with the requirement to anticipate everything, either prevent or facilitate what would “fix” all things and all people, and I had been reminded that I didn’t perform well enough to meet that mandate.
Catastrophic Thinking also contributed to cognitive dissonance which is, according to Wiki,
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
In every instance that I had exposed my vulnerabilities to an abusive or toxic person the AON thinking was increased. I was never taught that I was valued or worthy of care, concern, or love. Those values do not exist in a dysfunctional family dynamic – we learn that we are never, under any circumstances, “good enough.” So, we do everything within our power to anticipate the needs of toxic and/or abusive people, including people who don’t even factor into our lives, like coworkers, neighbors, and fellow church members (as an example), with the flawed belief that our ability to anticipate their needs, or the outcome is going to give us the power to create a false sense of calm.
This desire to create calm for everyone else is an absolute paradox, because it creates anxiety that eventually spirals out of control (Catastrophic Thinking) in us. That anxiety feeds our need to anticipate, control, and predict, and it becomes a vicious cycle of behavior. The anxiety, itself, causes intense fear because we know (on an academic level) that we have absolutely no control over anything other than ourselves, but, because this behavior may have developed over the course of our most impressionable years, the fear of failure to predict, determine, and control the outcome of any given situation is so overwhelming that it becomes a spinning emotional-and-physiological vortex that we cannot escape and are doomed to continue repeating.
This carries on through every aspect of our life. One example that I’ll provide is when a friend of mine was in nursing school and her Clinical Instructor was clearly disordered, as well as the doctor in charge of the program. These people played off of one another, and would punish any student who had the effrontery to refuse to “play the game” of dysfunction with them. My friend’ kept saying, “I have to play the game with her, or I’ll get kicked out of the program!”
She was insistent that the only course of action was to roll over, accept the verbal and emotional abuse that she (and, every other person in the program) experienced. In her Universe – the World of Trauma – she had no other option available. Common sense didn’t factor in – that she could actually file a grievance with the President of the institution, or even be proactive and protect her vulnerabilities with strong boundaries. It wasn’t personal against her, but she took it as such because of her programmed beliefs based upon her childhood traumas – she wasn’t “good enough.” Because of this false and flawed programmed behavior and system of beliefs, she spiraled into paralyzing anxiety because she truly believed that anything other than perfection (obtained by “playing the game” and tolerating abuse) was going to result in a catastrophic and irreversible failure. The anxiety that this created was literally paralyzing for her, and she couldn’t accept that she did not, under any circumstance, “have” to “play the game” with these people.
It was All or Nothing. AON. And, that is only one example of how Catastrophic Thinking literally determines a set pattern of behaviors for us that sets us up for anxiety and fear-based decision making.It creates panic which keeps us from thinking logically.
“Truthspeak, how can I manage this, then?” my friend said. Well, one of the most successful ways is to engage in strong counseling therapy with a licensed professional that specializes in trauma work. Another is to begin a daily ritual of meditation. Another is to practice “getting into the Now,” or “mindfulness.” There are as many management techniques for this as there are people on the planet. But, the caveat is this: if you have experienced long-term or catastrophic trauma, managing anxiety and rewiring your thinking is going to be a very, very difficult challenge to meet.
There are some things that we simply do not have the knowledge or training to accomplish on our own. For instance, we wouldn’t attempt to rewire an electrical system in our home if we did not have a practical, working, hands-on knowledge of electrical circuitry. We just wouldn’t because the risk of electrocution or other hazard would be too great. Well, the same goes forth with our emotional/behavioral health – we are too close to our personal tree to see the entire Forest Of Life. We can only see and react to what’s happening to that patch of bark that’s directly in front of our faces to even be aware that there is an entire forest all around, and that areas of our personal tree are in dire need of pruning.
If I could draw a graph of the “waves” of normal behavior in response to Life Events, it would look like ripples on a pond. People who are strong in their sense of self and have constructed strong personal boundaries still experience flat tires, unexpected financial setbacks, and even sudden personal losses – of course they do! An individual who lives in a constant climate of Catastrophic Thinking doesn’t experience ripples on a pond, but 60 foot waves that peak and trough comparable to “The Perfect Storm.” The “good” days are exhilarating beyond endurance, and the “bad” days are so deeply despairing that suicide (or, just not waking up) actually becomes an option. No, it’s not Bipolar, but it’s 100% based on Catastrophic Thinking and living with unprocessed trauma. We – those people who have experienced family dysfunction or long-term trauma – do not know what “normal” is. We catch a glimpse of it when we’re heading to the apex of the wave, or passing by on our inevitable fall back into the troughs, but it’s fleeting and we simply do not know what it feels like to experience a less dramatic cycle.
Envision a 55 gallon drum that collects trauma just like one might collect rainwater, and the “normal” and emotionally healthy person might have a shallow level of trauma in their “trauma tank.” Then, compare the level of trauma in that tank to mine, and there’s no comparison, really. My “trauma tank” was filled to capacity during my childhood. Any other event that occurs (like, Life, in general), and that tank inevitably spills over. I haven’t processed past traumas in any manner that could be remotely considered “healthy,” and there is no room for additional trauma. This is what we’re dealing with when we have been raised in, or exposed to long-term trauma and/or dysfunction.
If our “trauma tank” is filled, and even one drop of trauma is added, it spills over into anxiety and fear. All people have a “trauma tank” and ALL people can experience a “full tank”—-but that doesn’t mean we can’t work toward dipping out some buckets of trauma so that we have room in our tank for the “every day things” in life. Everyone has a “breaking point” in experiencing trauma that will “send them over the edge.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an example of what can happen when someone’s “trauma tank” fills to the brim, either suddenly or drop by drop. It doesn’t matter how that tank got full, only that it IS full and anything additionally stressful will make it over flow into anxiety and fear.
We must become self aware of the stress in our life, and mediate it as much as humanly possible so that we don’t become so overwhelmed that we can not cope. Sometimes the stress “sneaks up” on us drop by drop and almost before we know it we are so deep in the abyss that we can’t even see the light at the top of the hole. An old “saying” says “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” That is essentially what we must do. Stop the panic and catastrophic all or nothing thinking and seek support and help. The support is out there but we must seek it out, it won’t just come to us, but the help is available.