When stressed, we ‘catastrophize’ – but we can learn to calm our irrational fears | Sophie Brickman

Our primitive brains summon up worst-case scenarios to protect us from danger. In today’s world, that can be debilitating

The first day I returned to work after maternity leave, I walked to the office racked with a fear I knew to be highly unlikely: that our new, and loving, caregiver would push the stroller across the street at the precise moment a reckless driver ran the light. I imagined the sound of tires screeching, the sickening crunch. I started to sweat, and my heart rate quickened. And then, when I got to the office, I took a deep breath, told myself to pull it together, and did.

What I was doing, I later learned, is common to new parents. In a heightened emotional state, you’re more prone to what psychologists call “catastrophizing”, or experiencing “intrusive thoughts” – imagining the worst-case scenario, however improbable it might be. They came at me full-throttle when I became a mother; according to studies, I’m not alone. By some estimates, more than 70% of new mothers have them. One close friend catastrophizes, but in reverse – once the danger has passed, once the baby has been released from the doctor with just a normal virus, not the dreaded MIS-C, she’ll sit with the fear of what could have happened.

Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age

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