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How to Stop Catastrophizing: 5 Steps to Thinking and Feeling Better

Jun 21, 2022

 When presented with uncertainty do you find yourself going to the worst-case scenario sometimes, or even most of the time? This is a thought distortion, or cognitive distortion, called “catastrophizing”. It occurs when you are faced with uncertainty and only consider the worst possible outcome, instead of considering other possibilities. When you engage in catastrophizing, you experience unpleasant emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, worry, stress, or anxiety. An example of catastrophizing is, if you have an upcoming vacation, and you only think about missing your flight, your luggage getting lost, or it raining the whole time. Another example of catastrophizing would be if you get an email from your boss asking you to meet in the morning and all you can do is play through all the possible reasons he could be upset with you. A third example of catastrophizing would be if your partner is late getting home from work and you automatically think that they got in an accident, or that they are out doing something they should not be doing.

 

Can you relate to this type of thinking? Many people can and it is because it is human nature to do so. Your brain is designed to protect you so it believes that if it prepares you for the worst outcome possible, you can either protect yourself from it, or you can prepare yourself for it. What happens most of the time, however, is that the worst possible outcome never happens. In fact, often a really good outcome happens, and all the worrying was unnecessary.

 

In the examples provided, worrying and catastrophizing about things going wrong on vacation would have resulted in negative emotions leading up to the vacation. What if instead you considered getting a seat upgrade, arriving sooner than expected because of tailwinds, and having perfect weather the whole time. In the second example of catastrophizing, what if your boss scheduled a meeting with you to ask you if you would help with a special project that would result in more pay and a promotion? All your worry about what you may have done wrong would have created unnecessary fear and stress leading up to the meeting. In the example of catastrophizing about a partner not being home on time, what if they were running late because they stayed at work to close a big deal, or because they stopped to get gas, or they were actually home and sitting in their car in the driveway finishing up a phone call with a relative? There are so many possible reasons for why someone is running late that create much better feelings than assuming they got into an accident or are out doing something they should not be doing.

 

If the better scenarios above were what actually happened, instead of what your catastrophic thinking had you considering could happen, you would have experienced challenging emotions because of something you made up in your mind. If, by chance, any of the worst-case scenarios did happen, you would have worried twice, instead of just one time when the negative outcome actually occurred. The worrying would not have prevented it, it would have only made you feel bad for a longer period of time. You get to choose what you think about situations and you can choose to have thoughts that make you feel bad, or you can choose to have thoughts that make you feel good.

 

As I mentioned, it is human nature for your brain to want to consider the worst-case scenarios, however, you can train it to move away from this default thinking pattern. Below I will give you a five step process that will help you move away from catastrophic thinking patterns, which will result in you experiencing less worry, stress, frustration, anger, fear, and anxiety.

5 steps to thinking and feeling better.

  • Notice what you are thinking. The first step is to notice what you are thinking that is causing you to experience the negative emotions. Sometimes you will feel an emotion without knowing what thought is causing it. If this happens, take some time to ask yourself, “What am I thinking that is causing me to experience this feeling?”.

 

  • Decide if your thought is 100% true. If you know for a fact that something challenging will occur, that is very different than if you are making guesses about it. Catastrophizing is about considering the worst-case “what ifs” in a situation, not what you know will actually happen. If you notice yourself engaging in catastrophic thinking, challenge it and ask yourself, “Do I know that it is 100% true that this is what is going to happen?”.

 

  • Consider alternative outcomes. Once you determine that you are not 100% positive that the catastrophic outcome will occur, ask yourself what other outcomes there could be. Try to come up with a few that you genuinely believe are possible alternative outcomes. While you are at it, be sure to include the best-case scenario as part of the list.

 

  • Notice how the alternative outcomes make you feel. Notice how you feel when you think of better-case scenario outcomes instead of only the worst-case outcome. You will experience less worry, stress, frustration, anger, anxiety, and fear when you are faced with uncertainty and don’t only consider the worst-case scenario.

 

  • Gather evidence that debunks your catastrophizing. Take note of instances where you engaged in catastrophic thinking and the worst-case scenario that you imagined did not occur. Remind yourself that the outcome was better than you predicted and that you experienced challenging emotions for no reason, other than you allowed your brain to make up a story that made you feel bad.

 

Repeat this process anytime you notice yourself thinking of the worst-case scenario and you will start to change your brain so that it works for you, rather than against you. It is not about pretending everything is good when it is not, however, it is about managing your brain so that it does not cause you to experience unnecessary, negative emotions on an ongoing basis.

Live your best boss lady life! 

~ Karen 

Karen Vincent Solutions 

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