Everything But The Bagel: I can’t stop catastrophizing about the future. And I want to know why.

Why we resort to our “what if” brain during uncertain times and how to manage the spiral of anxiety-provoking thoughts.

Welcome to Everything But The Bagel, a weekly space to make you feel a little less stressed, and a little more grounded, just with writing instead of cream cheese. By diving deeper into the reality of life as a Trojan, Everything But The Bagel will help you get through the ups and downs of your college experience. Through relatable anecdotes, interviews, and my curated edit of recommendations, this newsletter will remind you that you are at this school for a reason, further helping you make the most of your time at ‘SC.

Dear Beautiful, Imperfect, Intelligent Humans,

I woke up to snow outside my window sill. It’s April 15th. Read that again.

I have officially been in quarantine for a month now and this “new normal,” as we like to call it, is starting to stick. Well, sort of. Do I like sleeping later and enjoying my morning cup of coffee at my leisure? Of course I do. But I keep finding myself playing the ‘what if’ game, which is a lose-lose game for those of you who know it.

I am constantly catastrophizing about the future. Will this ever end? What if we don’t go back to school in August? What if I never go back to college? What if I live under my parents roof until I’m 30? What if we social distance forever? One thought triggers another. You know what it’s like. And if you don’t, you’re lying. Lets just say it’s not the best use of your Wednesday afternoon.

Given this toxic state and thought cycle that I have been warped into, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. Why do we actually catastrophize? Is it a safety mechanism? More comfortable than sitting with the present moment? Can we prevent ourselves from catastrophizing?

To answer some of these questions, I spoke with Dr. Stephanie Zerwas, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Zerwas also runs Flourish Chapel Hill, a private practice for teens and young adults with anxiety and eating disorders.

“Catastrophizing falls into that thinking trap around time travel,” said Zerwas. “We like to future-trip. Our ‘what if’ brain gets activated and we begin to create all of these different scenarios. Zerwas acknowledges that it is, actually, quite amazing that our brains are capable of creating these potential future scenarios. The region of our brain that catastrophizes is the same section that allows us to be imaginative and creative. But that comes with a price to pay.

According to Zerwas, we catastrophize “so we can escape from whatever we are feeling in the moment.” While it may sound counterintuitive, it’s oftentimes easier to think of the worst possible outcome than to cope with your current uncertainty. “We think that escaping from uncertainty is going to help us, but it harms us long term,” Zerwas said.

But we have to take a step back and remember the reality of uncertainty. “Uncertainty is just a cognitive phenomenon,” Zerwas said. It’s not necessarily a lack of knowledge, but “this sensation that there is danger out there,” and not knowing when and where it will show up.

“We catastrophize almost because we don’t want to be blindsided” which is what people have been resorting to throughout this pandemic because they have never experienced anything like it before.

What’s empowering, however, is that we decide how much power we give to a thought. Zerwas emphasized the importance of looking at each and every catastrophic thought for what it is. “It’s not the truth. It’s a thought like any other thought.”

But the more “sticky” thoughts tend to take over our brains and our bodies. Zerwas encourages taking a step back from the mind spiral. Try to “sort of notice it and get curious about it.” Treating your “what ifs” with empathy and compassion is a much better coping mechanism than resisting them.

Oftentimes we are occupied with “being so mad at it for showing up,” which intensifies the thought even further, Zerwas said. If you can accept and sit with the thought, that actually allows you to seperate yourself from it.

Zerwas left me with an extremely resonant analogy that I want to leave you all with. You know that aunt or great aunt or cousin twice removed that means well but rubs you the wrong way? “Your catastrophizing brain is like that. But you have learned to say that your relative means well, but you aren’t going to listen to them,” Zerwas said.

Treat your catastrophic thoughts the same as you would that relative. You know that they want the best for you, but try politely declining their suggestion.

Wishing you all a week full of thought-control, gratitude, and laughter––lots of laughter.


Now here’s some of my favorite things from this week:


“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” —Marcus Aurelius

Continuing today’s theme, it is incredibly empowering to think about how much control we actually have over our thoughts. As my mom always said, you cannot control what others do to you or their decisions but what you can control is how you react. Or something along those lines. This can change the entire course of your day and the way you treat yourself and others––something that is so important as we continue to practice social distancing.


Modern Love is one of my all time favorite columns. This New York Times collection of relationship anecdotes is relatable, funny, heartwarming and, at times, emotional. Starting as a weekly column, Modern Love has expanded its reach to a book, a short-series T.V. show and now a podcast. This week I listened to a 23 minute episode called “Your Stories of Love During The Pandemic.” Listeners shared their story of how COVID-19 has hurt or improved their relationships. Some are funny, some are sad but there is an underlying theme: love is what will bring us back together, stronger and more unified after all of this madness. Give it a listen!


This week I am taking it upon myself to start prioritizing virtual connections. I am living with my two sisters and parents, so I am not in complete isolation, but this is still important. In this column I have been preaching about the importance of human connection and zoom happy hours, but sometimes making the effort and sending the text to set up the call seems like such a hassle. But every single time I get off the phone with a friend or group of friends, I feel like a different person. At peace. Like I am not alone, like we will actually come out of this stronger and better. So this week, I am going to make a list of people I want to catch up with and send those texts. May the best text win!


Every week, I welcome any questions or concerns you may have that could spark discussion/ bring awareness to our community. Just remember: No question is a dumb one.

Write to me here:

Email: ellakatz@usc.edu

Twitter: ellakatz20

Instagram: ellaakatz