On December 30th, Sarah and I welcomed our baby girl, Kate, into the world. She’s a happy and healthy baby, our lives are changed forever, and our sleep patterns are changed temporarily (I hope). So far, things are going great.
But right after her delivery, I was panicking. More specifically, I was catastrophizing: noticing something undesirable, then vividly imagining a chain of events leading to disaster. Here’s what happened. It’s very silly.
Eye Must Be Catastrophizing
Sarah’s labor was pretty long, and in my defense, I’d only had about 6 nonconsecutive hours of sleep in 48 hours when the baby arrived. As soon as Kate was out, the doctor handed her to Sarah for some immediate “skin-to-skin” mother/daughter bonding. I was sitting in a chair next to the two of them, looking directly into Kate’s eyes when I noticed something very unsettling: my daughter only had one eye.
“There’s no way,” I thought. She was looking at me with her right eye, but her left eye socket, like, had no eyeball. There was just skin, and the longer I looked at her, the more sure I became. Her eye was open, but there was nothing inside.
She has a birth defect. She’s missing her left eye. Okay, we’ll deal with it. We’ll get her a prosthetic. But what else might be wrong with her? Will she be developmentally delayed? Probably! Oh my god. What are we going to do? Should I tell Sarah? Should I let the doctor break the news? Aaaaahhh!
So . . . you might know this already, but babies’ eyes often swell shut during labor. I’m very happy to report that baby Kate has two eyes, and they even point in the same direction! A nurse delivered the good news a few minutes later during clean-up.
3 Ways to Avoid Catastrophizing
What’s to be learned from all this? First of all, sleep deprivation + a high stress situation = higher likelihood of poor decisions. I’m officially giving myself a pass on this one, given the circumstances. But we’re prone to catastrophizing in commonplace situations, too. How can we learn to avoid it?
1. Take a “rational thought time-out”
When we notice our thoughts spiraling out of control, it’s useful to stop ourselves and ask, “Am I picturing the worst-case scenario and assuming it will happen?” If the answer is yes, we can remind ourselves that there is a huge range of possible outcomes for any situation, and it’s not helpful to focus only on one (whether it’s very bad or very good).
2. Run the numbers
Often we picture a series of horrible events occurring (I can’t see my baby’s left eye/she has no left eye/she has other birth defects/her life is ruined) when even the first event in that chain is very unlikely. The odds of all of them occurring together are astronomical, like being bitten by a shark then struck by lightning on the way to the hospital.
3. Remember past catastrophes (and recovering from them)
We human beings have the ability to find happiness and meaning in any situation. Neat, huh? Even when our worst nightmares come true, we’re eventually able to bounce back. Think back over your own life. Haven’t you rebounded from disaster before? If you think carefully, you’ll probably realize you’ve recovered from several catastrophes. When you have to, you’ll do it again.
I’m really, really glad Kate has two eyes. But if she didn’t, we would have made the best of it. When I told Sarah about my catastrophizing, she just laughed. “We would have figured it out. We would have gotten her an adorable little eye patch and dressed her up like a pirate.”