Your car breaks down, and instead of problem-solving, you begin replaying every worst-case scenario imaginable. “I’m going to get fired from my job. I won’t be able to pay for my rent. I’ll be homeless within a month”. This is a classic case of catastrophic thinking, and it’s common to feel hopeless and overwhelmed when it occurs. Especially when you feel like there is no clear way out and your mind is calling all the shots. But it is possible to learn how to stop catastrophizing and gain control over your thoughts before they take you from 1 to 100.
What Is ‘Catastrophizing’?
Catastrophizing is irrational thinking that magnifies a current situation to an extreme. For example, if a person receives unfavorable news about an event, they will use that opportunity to think through every possible negative outcome. If you’re vulnerable to this type of thinking, you may feel like it’s comforting. But in reality, catastrophizing leads to increased stress and anxiety, both within the mind and body. Thankfully there are ways to break the habit.
3 Causes of Catastrophic Thinking
While it’s still unclear what causes catastrophic thinking, there are a few theories that might explain why some get caught in its web;
- Anxiety. This way of thinking could be associated with an anxiety disorder such as obsessive-compulsive, social anxiety or generalized anxiety. But even people experiencing chronic fatigue or chronic pain resort to catastrophizing as a negative coping mechanism.
- Learned experience. By observing your family members or immediate circle, you could have acquired this habit to cope with negative emotions.
- Fear plays a significant role and can trigger how you reframe events. For example, if you have underlying fears about failure or loss, a simple mistake can cause severe anxiety.
3 Common Examples of Catastrophic Thinking
When you’re stuck in this way of thinking, you may not know you’re doing it unless someone makes you aware. It often occurs subconsciously and can quickly spiral potential outcomes into possible future likelihoods.
- If I fail this presentation at work, everyone will laugh at me and gossip behind my back.
- What if I don’t make friends at this event, I’ll never make any friends, and I’ll spend every weekend by myself.
- If my partner breaks up with me, I’ll never feel happy again, and I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.
3 Dangers of Catastrophic Thinking
Contemplating about worst-case scenarios may not seem harmful, but in fact, it can create a host of concerns;
1. It creates barriers
If you’re prone to blowing things out of proportion, you may think challenges are worse than they appear. This habit may lead to barriers that prevent you from problem-solving, making decisions, and taking action.
2. It increases stress
Stress caused by constant worry can create severe mental and physical consequences such as depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and brain fog, to name a few.
3. It prevents growth
If you feed your anxiety with everything that could go wrong, you prevent yourself from taking risks, learning lessons, and adopting new pathways to shift your thinking.
How to Stop Catastrophizing: 7 Tips
1. Acknowledge what’s happening
The first step to pulling yourself out is by acknowledging that your default mode is replaying worst-case scenarios. When you build awareness that you’re engaging in this type of thinking, it can be easier to stop it. It can also give you information about what’s causing it. What are the triggers? Begin reviewing what situations increase your anxiety and noticing each time you do.
2. Question your thoughts
Often what fuels your spiral is not only the situation causing your negative emotions but the fact you’re having the thoughts in the first place. Instead of punishing yourself for thinking that way, increase your self-awareness by questioning the source. Ask questions such as “How often does my worst-case scenario happen?”, and “where is the evidence this scenario will occur?” Reviewing your thoughts from a third-party perspective will help you view them more logically, rationally, and help you learn how to stop catastrophizing.
3. It’s temporary
To gain control over your thoughts, practice reframing your thinking. For example, if you’re worried you will lose your job after sleeping past your alarm, try adopting a more reasonable approach. It’s okay to experience stressful situations, but they don’t have to be in black and white terms. Even though you slept in, you won’t sleep in every morning. You made a mistake, and that’s okay. The most important factor to remember is that this is likely a one-time mistake and not a warning you will repeat it in the future.
4. Start small
Catastrophic thinking makes you afraid your worst-case scenarios may come true and creates delayed action. When this happens, take action in a series of small steps. For example, if you’re worried driving will lead to an injury, talk yourself through completing the behavior – walk to the door, put the key in the lock, get in the car, etc. Every time you complete one small action, praise yourself and begin again. Often talking through an anxious situation one step at a time can calm your stress response.
5. Get specific
A cognitive error associated with catastrophic thinking is exaggerating one aspect of a negative situation. For example, believing a setback means your whole life is falling apart, or having a bad day means you have a bad life. Instead of focusing on the all-or-nothing approach, look at your life from a whole, and ask, “What is going right? Is there one thing I’m grateful for?”. When you try to find one specific area to focus on, it will help you prevent overgeneralizing.
6. You are not your thoughts
We often think if we’re having a negative thought, that it must be true – that somehow the sake of having a thought must mean it’s logical and rational. But your thoughts don’t always serve as accurate representations of what’s happening within you or around you. They are temporary, and if you see them as such, it will be harder for your mind to convince you otherwise.
7. It’s okay to receive help
Cognitive behavior therapy focuses on several components that will help you learn how to stop catastrophizing. By speaking with a mental health professional, you can recognize when you’re thinking this way, investigate the accuracy of your thoughts, and adopt techniques/coping mechanisms to help you shift your patterns.
Learning how to change your habits is not easy, but it is possible. Your brain is malleable, and you have the power to refocus your mind when catastrophic thinking begins to take control. The more you practice recognizing your triggers and interrupting your thoughts through different tips in this article, the more control you will have to maintain your chill when things get intense.
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