A man with hands in a meditative pose as a snowball rolls down a mountain in his head

Learning Not to Catastrophize with MS

Last updated: May 2023

Sometimes everything in my life with multiple sclerosis (MS) works out so well it’s like all the pieces just fell perfectly into place on their own, and it feels awesome. My MS has been on its best behavior, all my medical appointments have been going smoothly, there haven’t been any issues with the pharmacy filling my prescriptions, my health insurance has been approving everything; I could go on and on.

But sometimes the opposite is true, and absolutely nothing seems to work out in my favor… at least that’s how it feels.

Sabotaging myself

For a lot of my life, I had a problem with catastrophizing, especially after I was diagnosed with MS. I don’t remember being so cynically pessimistic in the past, but I guess it got hard not to always assume the worst after I lost the medical-life lottery. So, any time there was a deviation from the way I imagined things would work out, I frequently jumped to the conclusion that I was screwed, and everything was terrible. This was obviously counter-productive.

It took longer than it should have, but eventually I realized how much this kind of thinking was hindering my efforts to achieve my health goals. Stress was a huge trigger for my MS, and as it turned out, one of my greatest sources of stress was… me. Or at least, my catastrophizing was.

But even after I noticed all of this in myself, it would be some time before I even started to learn how to manage my negative thinking. But I knew I had to, because living with all this constant negativity was like standing outside in a wool sweater during the peak of summer; it was observably doing harm to my MS.

Retracing my steps

After becoming aware of this little problem of mine and the damage it was doing, I knew I needed to change something, but what? I of course turned to where I always go when I’m trying to solve a problem: YouTube. There’s never a shortage of both good and bad self-help videos there! I was sure this is where I’d find the solution I was looking for. Sure enough, I soon started to see and understand the source of my problem and how I could start to address it.

It seems embarrassingly obvious now, but at first, I honestly couldn’t see where my self-sabotaging trains of thought were originating from. All I was aware of was the smoldering train wreck they resulted in: an explosive flare-up of my MS symptoms. So, with all the self-help advice I had gathered, I started trying to stop and “retrace my mental steps” whenever I noticed myself starting to slip into a pattern of stressful thoughts. Finding my way from how I was currently thinking back to where those thoughts started didn’t exactly require a road map.

Identifying destructive thought patterns

The first time I was able to identify the exact moment one of these destructive thought patterns started to form was a few years ago. I was having an MS flare and my neurologist wanted to treat it with Acthar instead of Solu-Medrol, since I no longer seemed to have much luck with steroids.

I had used Acthar many times before with no issues. Not with the medication itself and not with getting ahold of it. This time, however, my insurance denied it. This is where the crucial fork in the road that my thoughts were on was located.

Upon learning that my insurance had denied my request for Acthar, a medication that I knew worked for me, I started catastrophizing. “What the hell? Why won’t they let me have my meds? I NEED to take care of this relapse so I don’t have to cancel my upcoming trip! Ugh, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it! Now instead of taking pictures on top of a snowy mountain, I’ll be stuck at home nursing a relapse… And how will I get any work done?” And before long my thoughts were forming a snowball of doom and gloom that was rapidly growing in size as it rolled down a steep hill.

Unnecessary stress

As it turned out, my neurologist had already filed an appeal in anticipation of this. Though it took a bit longer than I originally thought it would, my insurance eventually approved my Acthar request and quickly delivered it to my doorstep. None of the thoughts I had spent days ruminating over actually happened. But the stress those thoughts caused me had definitely turned up the intensity of my flare. I was paying a higher price than I had to. That’s when I spotted the exact moment that snowball of catastrophes started to form.

Again, it's super obvious now, but at the time I felt like an old scientist in front of a giant chalkboard who had finally solved a huge math problem he had been working on for years. Eureka! The reason I had ended up where I had was that when I received that denial letter, I automatically assumed the worst would happen.

If I had instead told myself not to worry because it would probably end up working out and that I would be just fine, I would have gotten my medication just the same. Only without all the unnecessary stress I created, negatively impacting the relapse I was experiencing.

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An ongoing effort to be better

That was just one of many examples of how I’ve catastrophized in the past. Life with MS provides many opportunities for my mind to fall into this pattern of thinking, but I’ve gotten significantly better at recognizing when I am so that I can stop it before it’s too late.

Sometimes I have to do a little journaling to spot when I’m starting to catastrophize, and sometimes I might have to go on a long walk to literally step away from a problem and think about it more clearly. It's not always easy, but I know it’s worth the ongoing effort. Because the only one who pays for the stress of catastrophizing is me.

What about you? Do you have a hard time not catastrophizing? Was this always the case for you, or did it start after your MS came about? How have you dealt with it and what advice do you have for others dealing with these negative thought patterns? Share in the comments below!

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