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Navigating Catastrophic Thinking, Part 2

When we’re struggling with catastrophic thinking, our mind imagines all kinds of disasters occurring: A presentation at work not only doesn’t go well, but it ends in getting fired. Asking someone on a date ends in a big fat “No!” and getting humiliated. Your best friend not returning your call ends in them hating you. Your spouse running late ends in a car wreck.

These are the disastrous assumptions our minds make — for some of us, more regularly than others.

But the good news is that you don’t have to follow your mind into the minefield. You can employ a variety of tools to reduce catastrophic thinking and focus on thoughts that actually serve and support you.

In Part One, clinical psychologist Joe Dilley, Ph.D, shared four practical strategies for coping effectively with catastrophic thoughts. Below, he shared three more helpful suggestions.

1. Play out the tape.

“’Playing out the tape’ means ‘reading the rest of the story’ instead of anticipating a bad ending after only reading one chapter,” said Dilley, the author of The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug & Reconnect in the Digital Age. And in that story, the main character is victorious over the enemy or situation, he said.

Here’s how it works: After you imagine the worst-case scenario, ask yourself “OK, and then what would happen?” Respond to that question, and then ask it again.

“Continue asking and answering until you reach a pretty dull conclusion.” Make it so boring that if your story were turned into a screenplay, it’d never receive financial backing, he said.

Dilley shared the below example of a therapy session using this technique:

Patient: “I’m going on a group boating trip where, supposedly, from the boat, you can observe and even get really close to bears on land. I’m afraid something could happen.”

Therapist: “Sure. Like what? Exactly what could happen?”

P: “Well, let’s say our boat got pretty close to the shore and the bears knew they could overtake us.”

T: “What would happen next?”

P: “They would come after us.”

T: “Right. And then?”

P: “Well, they would have to jump in the water first.”

T: “Definitely. And next?”

P: “We’d high-tail it outta there and they’d have to swim after us.”

T: “And then?”

P: “Well, we’d get across to the other side. But then, they might get across too. But, then again, that’s where the cabin is, so we’d just go inside the cabin.”

T: “What next?”

P: “We’d wait in the cabin until they moved on.”

T: “Pretty boring story, right? Initially exciting, but then the only interesting part is that these bears could be so persistent in swimming after a boat!”

P: “Well, yeah. I guess so! And, I heard that more people died last year of refrigerators falling over on them than from bear attacks.”

T: “Gosh, if we were even gonna try to sell this as a screenplay, then we’d have to alter the story to make the boat trip one where passengers can get “up close” with and observe an island of falling refrigerators.”

And then they both cracked up.

 2. Visualize success.

As you did in the previous tip, you can imagine the worst-case scenario. But then also imagine yourself confronting the potential catastrophe. Imagine yourself overcoming the situation and it ending in something other than destruction, said Dilley, who also co-founded a private practice in Los Angeles with his wife, Dr. Carrie Dilley.

In other words, visualize yourself as successful – something pro athletes and Navy SEALS do all the time, he said. They “use visualization to see how they want the mission to go and then enact that sequence.”

Dilley shared the example of Super Bowl-winning Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson: Wilson visualizes every play in the playbook. He visualizes using plan A and succeeding. Then he visualizes the plays getting busted and using plan B to succeed.

3. Focus on your body.

According to Dilley, “Given the constant interplay between mind and body and among thoughts-feelings-behaviors, taking some control of the body can calm the mind.”

For instance, you might practice diaphragmatic breathing, take a walk, give or receive a hug, do a few pushups and tightly squeeze specific muscle groups, he said.

You also can calm yourself during the feared situation. Dilley had an acting coach who used this technique during job interviews: She’d “channel all of her anxiety into her grip on the left arm of her chair, while thereby speaking eloquently and casually making all of her gestures with her right hand.”

One of Dilley’s clients, a best-selling author, used progressive muscle relaxation to manage his anxiety about publication deadlines.

Our minds can be very convincing, persuading us that various dangers and disasters await us and our loved ones. But you don’t have to buy into those thoughts. You don’t have to believe everything you’re thinking. Remember that when your mind starts creating all sorts of scary stories, you can stop the tape and refocus. And if you’re having a hard time stopping the tape on your own, consider seeing a therapist.

Stay tuned for the last piece in our series on catastrophic thinking for additional tools and techniques.

Rainy day roads photo available from Shutterstock

Navigating Catastrophic Thinking, Part 2

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Navigating Catastrophic Thinking, Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Sep 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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