Catastrophic Thinking: When Your Mind Clings to Worst-Case Scenarios
How often does a negative thought spiral into an imminent disaster? How often does something innocuous become an impending catastrophe in your mind? For instance, a blemish on your face becomes a cancerous tumor. A flight to another state turns into the plane crashing. Your child not attending a specific school turns into him never getting a good job.
These examples of catastrophic thinking might seem extreme, maybe even silly. But before we know it a situation we’re concerned about becomes a full-blown worst-case scenario.
Clinical psychologist Joe Dilley, Ph.D, shared these examples of how quickly our thinking can go south:
“If my mom insists on holding Thanksgiving at her house again, then I’m gonna be stuck having to defer to her timing, which will disappoint my in-laws who seem to always want us at their place at the same time my mom wants us at hers. We can’t be two places at once! Ugh. We’re always disappointing someone. Another holiday ruined! This ALWAYS happens!”
“My boss called me into her office for a meeting tomorrow. She never asks me to meet outside of the regular staff meetings. It’s not performance review time or anything, so I don’t know what we’d need to meet about — unless it’s something bad. I hope my job is safe. Our sister company just laid off a bunch of people. I guess my job could be in jeopardy too. I’m dreading that meeting. Now I can’t sleep.”
Catastrophic thinking is problematic because it triggers the very outcome we’re trying to prevent: “an unpleasant or painful state of affairs,” Dilley said.
“For example, worrying that a pimple is a tumor activates some of the same brain regions and emotional apprehension that occurs when the bump actually turns out to be a tumor.” Catastrophic thinking also spikes the stress hormone cortisol and reduces our ability to react effectively, he said.
When your mind is producing catastrophic thoughts, Dilley’s four tips can help. Also, stay tuned for a second and third piece with more practical tips.
1. Notice your thoughts.
“Notice when your thoughts slip from realistic anxieties into unusual or unlikely scenarios,” said Dilley, author of The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug & Reconnect in the Digital Age. Pay attention to patterns.
For instance, he shared this example: “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Just about every time I am driving to work on a Tuesday morning for my weekly staff meeting, I find my thoughts … imagining the worst happening. I don’t really have that when I’m driving to work any other morning of the week. What is it about those meetings that I’m apprehensive about?”
Also, when your thoughts become catastrophic, notice if you’re judging yourself. (Which only amplifies your anxiety.) Dilley shared this example: “Oh man, I’m freaking out again. I always do this! But, wait, how do I know if what I’m fearing is real?! I’m so stuck!”
Sometimes, we don’t even realize that our minds are producing such dramatic thoughts. Dilley’s favorite long-term solution for sharpening self-awareness is mindfulness meditation. This helps us “become more attuned to our thoughts and to when and how they shift. [This way] we’re better able to discern when our thought processes take a ‘left turn.’”
He likes this exercise in particular: Describe the sounds you hear around you using neutral words. When your mind shifts to other thoughts or senses, without judgment, refocus on listening to the sounds.
2. Regain the control you do have.
“You can’t control everything, but consider the realistic options available to you in the moment,” said Dilley, who also co-founded a private practice in Los Angeles with his wife, Dr. Carrie Dilley. He shared these examples: If you’re worried about flying, research the physics behind it. Remind yourself that this practice has existed for over a century and that, statistically, you’re safer in a plane than in your car.
If you’re worried about the spot on your face, make an appointment with a dermatologist to get it checked out. If you’re worried about your child’s education, find out where some of the most successful people went to school. (You’ll learn that the specific school matters to some extent. But “it’s certainly not all that matters nor is it the primary predictor of long-term outcomes.”)
3. Face your fears.
“The single most effective way to overcome your fears is to face them,” Dilley said. “Jung observed that that which you resist persists.” For instance, if you fear flying, take a vacation out of state, he said. If you fear that you have a serious problem in your marriage, address it with your partner, he said. (Because if there is a serious problem, then at least you’ll know what to work on, instead of worrying, ruminating and feeling stuck.)
4. See a psychotherapist.
You might be thinking that catastrophes do happen — “planes DO crash!” And as Dilley said, you’d be right. “We live in a scary world sometimes.” And the above tips might not help your anxiety. This is when seeing a therapist for individualized help is important.
(Sadly, it’s more acceptable to see a dentist than it is a therapist, which Dilley said, is backward. “I remain unclear why we would be more ‘OK with’ taking better care of our mouths than our minds.”)
Years ago Dilley was working with a woman who expressed she had a fear of flying. It turns out that her fear was really just an acceptable reason to decline a job that would take her out of state and abroad. Together they realized that she was (subconsciously) anticipating emotional turmoil if she accepted the position. So they worked on that. Today, this client is “following her passion in another country. What a shame it would have been if she stayed in her hometown at a job she found unfulfilling based on the logic that ‘some planes do crash.’”
Our minds are very effective at creating catastrophic thoughts – and they can leave us very convinced. Thankfully there are strategies we can practice to calm our anxiety and empower ourselves.
This is part one in our series on catastrophic thinking. Stay tuned for parts two and three for more tips for coping effectively.
Young man worrying photo available from Shutterstock
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Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Catastrophic Thinking: When Your Mind Clings to Worst-Case Scenarios. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/catastrophic-thinking-when-your-mind-clings-to-worst-case-scenarios/