An unwieldy weapon from nature
Our species diverged from our last common ancestors several million years ago and have since transcended other hominins to become the most intelligent lifeform on earth. Our survival through a hostile history wrought by natural selection was predicated on our ability to innovate and adapt. We developed effective strategies to assess and avert existential threats. In such a world with limited recourse, making quick and often drastic decisions drew the line between life and death. An encounter with a lion on the savanna offered mere moments to avert the risk of death. Thus, an indiscriminate reflex was guaranteed to increase chances of survival. However, as isolated survival units congregated into increasingly complex communities, adversarial situations required more complex responses. Contrast the feral encounter with a feud with an adjacent adversarial tribe that is training an army. Both scenarios share a calamitous end, death. However, while a precipitous spear strike would have been the undisputed response to a close encounter with a fleet-footed predator, an adversarial tribe could be bargained with. Moreover, a treaty in the latter scenario could facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation. Assessing an equivalent threat in both cases based on their shared catastrophic endpoint may tilt the response of “the aggressed” towards similar reflexive anguish. Needless to say, conflating an inveterate predator with a human tribe would disregard the nuance of the latter, justifying the use of a blunt weapon in response. Such a critical failure of innate human survival heuristics to secern both the existence and gradations of threat is at the core of catastrophizing behavior. This inappropriate response is a precedent to deep personal and sociological consequences laid out in The Coddling of the American Mind.
Succinctly, to catastrophize is to perceive a situation as worse than it is. Whether by extension of a threat into its worst-case scenario or entirely projecting a different more insidious threat in its place, catastrophizing is irrational. It requires a fundamental dissonance between internal individual convictions and external reality. Diagnosing catastrophizing behavior can be difficult not only because it beckons a confrontation with the flaws in our deepest instincts for self-preservation, but may also be at odds with the ego. For individuals, failure to overcome this tendency can perpetuate feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and depression (if chronic). In interpersonal situations, it may distort our perception of other people’s motives and actions, prompting hostile attribution biases. Once misclassified as existential threats, the subjectively offensive actions of others lose all nuance. Thus, tactless retaliation against these demonized straw men may feel justified sans any real attempt at genuine understanding. On a societal level, catastrophizing widespread phenomena like infectious diseases, economic downturns and contentious speech may be used to justify anarchy and/or infringement of personal freedoms perceived to perpetuate these threats. Regardless, catastrophizing always risks turning the spotlight away from meticulous conflict resolution towards an unjustified offensive.
Opportunities in omens
Personally, I have had to contend with catastrophizing both within and from without. Growing up amid occasional encounters with catastrophe through socioeconomic and political challenges, I have always had ample reasons to catastrophize. Drawing out the worst-case scenarios of the mishaps in my life was not only effortless, but also seemingly well-founded by my circumstances. However, dwelling in the abyss of unrealized catastrophe was not only unremarkable, but also stagnating. As a species that is attuned to negative experiences by evolution, we are all capable of envisioning the “ultimate catastrophe” and focusing on the doom it represents. Conversely, forward thinking requires a healthy balance of optimism, innovation and discipline. In confronting precarious situations, I strive to relegate the ultimate catastrophe to one of multiple unrealized scenarios under consideration, diverting heed to the factors required to steer myself towards better outcomes. When effectively instituted, this forestallment of catastrophizing has granted me the headspace to respond to difficult situations more prudently.
Considering the unpredictability of life, the unrealized ultimate catastrophe is never irrevocably averted. Naively disregarding this worst-case scenario can be a dereliction of a useful evolutionary instinct that may leave one unprepared for debilitating blows. However, the crux of all unrealized catastrophes is their immateriality. Thinking of them as an opportunity for mitigation is not only prudent, but also the only way to limit the collateral damage of disproportionate responses. Certainly, it sets up the stage for better discernment of risk and may be an important safeguard against the unjust repercussions of catastrophizing behaviour.