When you hear the words “catastrophic thinking,” you likely think of catastrophes, disasters and destruction. And you’d be right. Catastrophic thinking occurs when our minds create worst-case scenarios or exaggerate the negative outcome of a situation, said Jenna Wierenga, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with adolescents and adults at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, an outpatient clinic in Grand Rapids, Mich.
For instance, according to Wierenga, catastrophic thinking is dwelling on all the things that could go wrong with your presentation: “What if I mix up the order of my presentation? What if I choke on my words? What if I faint or have to run out of the boardroom?”
Catastrophic thinking is pondering all the negative reasons why your date didn’t return your call right away, she said. It is creating a devastating diagnosis before seeing your doctor.
“Frequently people will rationalize their catastrophic thinking by asserting that it is a form of problem-solving or helps them anticipate the worst.” However, it’s actually the opposite.
Catastrophic thinking paralyzes us and stops us from making constructive solutions, she said. That’s because it “increases anxiety and the flight or fight response, leaving an individual to make decisions based on intense emotional fear rather than objective facts.”
Thankfully, you can learn to cope effectively with these thoughts. Below, Wierenga shared five valuable strategies.
Often we get so caught up with our catastrophic thoughts that we don’t even realize what’s happening with our bodies. For instance, your breathing might be getting shorter, your heart rate might be spiking and your palms might be getting sweatier and sweatier. These are signs of anxiety, which catastrophic thinking can fuel, Wierenga said.
“Taking time to notice your breath and slow your breathing will help ground you in the current situation and take you out of your head.”
2. Consider if your thoughts are fact or fiction.
“Try and ground yourself in the facts of the situation, and look for ways you may be trying to bridge the gap with unrealistic fears,” Wierenga said. For instance, you’re having catastrophic thoughts about a presentation you’re giving tomorrow. According to Wierenga, you can focus on the facts in this way:
- From “The presentation will feel like forever!” to: “The presentation will only last 10 minutes.”
- From “No one will understand what I’m trying to say; I’ll make a fool out of myself” to: “If I am not clear, people will ask questions that I can use to clarify my points.”
- From “I’ll start rambling, my throat will get dry, and I’ll probably pass out…” to: “I have my notecards to refer to if I get lost, and I can take a sip of water to regroup.”
3. Consider another perspective.
Ask yourself, “Is there another way of looking at this?” Wierenga said. If you’re having a tough time coming up with other perspectives, she also suggested asking yourself: “What would my friend say about this?” or “What would I say to my friend if he or she was having these thoughts?”
Such questions can be very helpful because often we’re more compassionate and hopeful when encouraging others – “something that we need to extend to ourselves as well,” she said.
4. Acknowledge the positives.
“Catastrophic thinking is essentially negative outcomes or interpretations of a situation,” Wierenga said. But life isn’t black or white. There are both positive and negative aspects in every experience, she said. The key is to take a balanced view.
Wierenga encouraged readers to acknowledge the potential positive outcomes. For instance, you might have anxiety about social situations. But introducing yourself and asking questions can help you broaden your social circle, find someone with similar interests and maybe even make a friend.
Another positive outcome of facing anything you perceive as catastrophic, Wierenga said, is reducing your fear. “If I want to ask someone out but imagine all the worst outcomes, I most likely will avoid the situation. However, if I face these fears and acknowledge the potential positive outcome — going out on a date, meeting someone new, finding out that I would never want to date the person based on their response and behavior — I may have the courage to challenge my catastrophic thinking, and take a risk.”
She also suggested reflecting on past situations where you expected the worst but something positive or neutral happened. Again, this helps you adopt a more balanced view.
For instance, you have anxiety about asserting your needs in a relationship, Wierenga said. That is, you want to talk about spending more time together. You start thinking the worst – “What if they think I’m needy or they don’t want to spend time with me?” When you reflect on other situations where you asserted yourself, you realize that you ended up feeling closer to the other person. And you started an important conversation that “helped you determine how much you wanted to invest in the relationship.”
5. Acknowledge your strengths and resources.
Remember that even if the outcome isn’t ideal, you have the strength and resources to cope with it, and be resilient, Wierenga said. For instance, if you receive negative information from your doctor, you can acknowledge your ability to face an intense treatment.
If your presentation doesn’t go as planned, you can reach out to a friend to remind you that your value and worth go beyond your business, she said. If you’re struggling with stress, you can turn to relaxing resources, such as taking a walk, listening to music or coloring, she said.
When we’re in the throes of catastrophic thinking, we assume that these worst-case scenarios are inevitable facts. But if we pause, we can ground ourselves in the real facts, and we can remind ourselves of our own resilience.
Storm photo available from Shutterstock