“I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.” ~ Mark Twain
When we’re stressed our brain can get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours such as excessive worrying, difficulty focusing, or dwelling on negative experiences. Our brains can get stuck catastrophizing.
So what does it mean to catastrophize? It’s a common habit of thinking about something and making if far worse than it actually is, creating a worst-case scenario, causing fear and anxiety. Some call it magnifying which is a good way to think of it, because it emphasizes how we can magnify things way out of proportion, dreaming up scary scenarios, going far beyond simple exaggeration, linking one imagined event to another until we’re paralyzed with fear, going from one scary thought to the next. It magnifies or exaggerates something small or minor into a much bigger, graver situation. It’s when you make small errors but treat them like big ones – “I made a mistake, I’m such an idiot, I’ll probably get fired”. Catastrophic thinking is a whole other level of negativity (refer to my previous post negativity bias). When you imagine the worst case scenario, the what if’s, you will get scared or become angry.
Catastrophic thinking is a habitual response to challenges or shortcomings such as how you think about failing or how you respond to challenges. It starts with the belief that something terrible will happen, or that you can’t recover. People with anxiety imagine losing control of themselves, for example, they think they’ll have a panic attack if they go to the mall and imagine it’ll be a catastrophic, rather than just simply uncomfortable. Expecting the worse case is an excellent way to make yourself anxious, depressed, unmotivated and completely ruin your life.
So how does catastrophizing mess us up? We’ve all experienced some type of tragedies in our life, including painful rejection or failure. We believe that if we trick ourselves into believing that if we expect the worst, we can prevent it from happening. But in reality, the exact opposite happens. Seeing the worst often leads to the worst, because we not only cut ourselves off from opportunities, we actually end up inviting the exact problems we are hoping to avoid. If we go into a conversation expecting the other person will be defensive, we come in ready to attack and lead off more harsh, thus inviting the other person to be defensive. Catastrophizing invites depression as the future is seen as dreary, hopeless, leading to a cycle of withdrawing from life, a lack of motivation, and a pattern of depression. It invites anxiety by forcing our brain to see threats and failures everywhere and our brain responds to perceived threats as very real fear response – flight, fight, freeze response. This contributes to social anxiety and leads to paralysis.
“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t, said Pooh. After careful thought Piglet was comforted by this. Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne)
Examples of catastrophic thoughts, and how you can think differently
If or when you catch yourself catastrophizing, think of what might help you. What could you consciously and mindfully say to yourself when you think these thoughts? Ask yourself if it’s real or imagined. Here are a few examples:
Catastrophic thought: Oh no, I’m such an idiot, I made a mistake on the report, I’m never going to finish it, or even if I do finish it, it will be so bad, it won’t be any good anyway. I’m going to get fired no matter what.
Replace with: Ok wait, that’s not true. Everyone makes mistakes, I’m only human, I’ll fix this problem, or mistake, and if I need to ask for help I can but I’ll keep working hard and try to be more careful in the future. Nobody is going to fire me for making a mistake in a report.
Catastrophic thought: I can’t believe I said that to my boyfriend. He’s going to leave me for sure this time.
Replace with: I shouldn’t have said that to my boyfriend. I need to learn to talk more kindly even when I’m upset. I’m going to try and apologized, and try and make it right. Hopefully he’ll understand and accept my apology and we’ll both learn from this.
Catastrophic thought: My husband is late coming home from work. I’m sure he’s been in a car accident or something terrible has happened. I’ll probably get a call from the police or the hospital.
Replace with: I know he’s been really busy at work and I’m sure he’s just got caught up in a meeting and forgot to call. I’ll let him know that I worry when I don’t hear from him, and ask him to message me next time he thinks he’ll be late.
Catastrophic thought: I haven’t heard from my friend for over a week. She must not like me or want to be my friend anymore.
Replace with: I haven’t heard from my friend for over a week. She must be incredibly busy. I’ll give her a call to see how she’s doing and let her know I’m thinking about her.
Catastrophic thought: I heard rumors that my company is having financial troubles, and I just know I’m going to lose my job, my home, and end up penniless on the street.
Replace with: I’m curious if these rumors are true and maybe I’ll go talk to my manager. And even if it’s true, the worse case scenario is I lose my job. I’ll know I’ll be fine and get another job, maybe even a better one.
Why do we catastrophize?
Catastrophizing essentially serves two dysfunctional functions:
1) Preparing for the worse is a coping strategy preventing us to feel risk or uncertainty. If I expect myself to fail I won’t be disappointed if I do. If I reject myself first, I don’t have to worry that someone will do it to me. Catastrophizing is a way to avoid feeling and to protect ourselves from feeling sadness or worry. Yet paradoxically, when we try not to feel we often end up becoming depressed and anxious. Expecting the worst also justifies not even trying and attempts to excuse our failure before we put in an effort. No wonder it feels more safe and comfortable than putting your heart out there. While it’s comfortable in the short term it’ll crush the joy out of your life in the long run. You’re not risking failure but you can’t have success either. You’re not getting rejected, but you’re still alone on the weekend.
2) The belief that fear is the best motivation. Motivating ourselves to study, go to work, etc. by using fear and predicting doom and gloom, like, we’ll end up working in a dead-end job, living on the streets, or be all alone, works briefly as a motivator but over the long term causes us to become anxious, depressed, overwhelmed and less functional. It’s not a sustainable source of motivation.
How you can feel better?
- Get more sleep. Getting a good night sleep will give you a greater ability to face challenges bravely; when we are sleep deprived we are hyper sensitive to threats and lack resilience when facing challenges.
- Stick with the facts. Focus on the specifics to keep your mindset clear and focused on the only thing you can control – your reaction. You are not your thoughts or feelings. The difference between a thought that sticks in your brain and one that floats on by is what we choose to make of it.
- Set positive goals. Motivate yourself by what you do want in life, what you value,and hope for instead of using fear. For example, instead of saying I need to go to school so I don’t end up on the streets, you say, I want to go school because I want to be a teacher, doctor, (you fill in the blank). Choose what you do want in life, break it down in to small goals, and bravely work towards those little by little.
- Stay present and engaged even if a risk of not going perfecting involves vulnerability. Risking failure or hurt to have success and joy involves staying engaged even if things don’t go perfectly. The only alternative is to guarantee failure by cutting yourself off before you even try.
- Accept uncertainty as a natural and acceptable part of living a wholehearted life. This is fundamental life skill that can be developed and practiced. It involves changing how you think about anxiety. Instead of labeling a situation as bad or harmful or you can’t handle it, you can say, this is uncomfortable, but it won’t injure me and I can do hard things. Embrace acceptable risk and the anxiety that comes with it as natural normal and helpful. Build up your emotional muscles so you can experience uncomfortable emotions by practicing mindfulness, meditation, or doing something that scares you every day.
- Start by noticing when you are catastrophizing. What are the words or exaggerations you use to make things worse than they are, such as never, always, terrible, failure, horrible, rejected, awkward. Notice the situations that you tend to catastrophize about. Write down what it looks like when you do it. Ask a friend or family member to point it out when you do.
- Challenge those thoughts – just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true. Learn to notice and gently question your thoughts. You don’t have to believe everything you think but don’t beat yourself up for your thoughts – it’s not very helpful. Notice your thoughts, then let them pass.
- Replace thoughts with something more honest and helpful. Once you start to notice this type of thinking, begin to combat with more honest, more rational thoughts. Consider other possible outcomes. Even if something bad did happen, you could learn from it it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
- When you find yourself starting to imagine the worst-case scenario, grab a sheet of paper and write down what you’re telling yourself. Then for each statement, ask yourself, “Is it real?” and then cross off everything on your list that is not real
Now, it’s your turn:
When was the last time you catastrophized? What was the situation? How did it affect your behaviour? What might you say to yourself when you find your imagination creating a worst-case scenario? Share your examples in the comments.
Photo source: Susan Wheeler (morning hike in North Vancouver, BC)