There are times when we worry too much even though it’s unnecessary for a particular situation. Even worse, we anticipate a catastrophic outcome.
As we continue to convince ourselves that the problem is going to be so huge to the point where we couldn’t bear it, the more stressed and anxious we feel. If you have experienced this, you may be dealing with a cognitive distortion called catastrophising.
Catastrophising is one of the many cognitive distortions or automatic thoughts that occur in response to events in our lives. Although they affect a person from time to time, having them more frequently can increase your risk of depression. People who are depressed are also likely to display distorted thinking.
What is catastrophising?
Catastrophising, also called catastrophic thinking, is when you imagine the worst-case scenario. Here’s a sample thought from someone who catastrophises: ‘I feel sick today. But if I do not come to school, my teacher will get disappointed and I’ll underperform for the rest of the year!’ From an outside perspective, this sounds irrational. But for the person having this thought, it all seems true.
Like with other cognitive distortions, catastrophic thinking may be triggered by situations that spark negative emotions in the individual. This is why it’s so important for you to become aware of how situations influence your thoughts and emotions. As mentioned earlier in this article, habitual negative thinking can affect your mental health. It zaps your energy, and self-confidence, and leads to missed opportunities.
How to change catastrophising
The only way to address catastrophic thinking is to identify when it’s taking place. Once you’re aware of it, you can practice these strategies, and at the same time get started with cognitive behavioural therapy.
- Accept that life has ups and downs. No one is exempted from experiencing disappointments. That’s just a fact of life. Learning to let go of expectations and how things should turn out will help make negative events more bearable. One tip that can help you tolerate the uncertainty of life is to always focus on what’s within your control. This can mean doing your best and accepting whatever the outcome may be.
- Work with someone providing CBT. Cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT has been proven to help change negative thought patterns. It’s also being used together with medication for serious mental health conditions. If you find that catastrophizing is greatly affecting your stress levels or worse – it’s causing you to feel depressed – you need help from a psychologist or therapist who can offer CBT. Kids and teens alike can answer these depression worksheets that will allow them to track and challenge negative automatic thoughts. At the same time, they may learn to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy coping skills.
- Keep a journal. Jot down whatever you’re worried about. Getting these worrisome thoughts on paper will not only reduce your stress but also allows you to keep track of negative thought patterns and work on them. If you’re using journaling to support a child or teen who uses catastrophic thinking, you can give them prompts as a starting point for reflection.
- Use mindfulness to relieve negative emotions. Mindfulness means being fully aware of the present moment and not judging it in any way. A review of empirical studies has shown that mindfulness reduces emotional reactivity to negative stimuli. Furthermore, it improves behavioural regulation or your ability to resist unhealthy behaviours to handle strong emotions. There are plenty of ways to practise mindfulness each day and in situations where you’re catastrophizing. For example, sitting in a comfortable place and taking deep breaths help calm your mind and body.
- Practise countering your assumptions. Each time you notice yourself expecting the worst, counter that assumption by asking important questions like: Is this the only outcome that’s possible? Am I only paying attention to the negative? What other alternatives are there? What positive thought can I replace this bad thought with? How does this thought serve me?
- Ask yourself gratitude questions. Overcome catastrophic thinking by leveraging gratitude. It’s a powerful antidote to any negative emotion caused by automatic thoughts. Focus on all the positive things in your life right now, no matter how small they seem. To kickstart your daily gratitude practice, ask yourself gratitude questions like: What inspired me and why? What made me laugh? What did I learn? Write down these questions in your journal.
- Make time for self-care. Self-care is vital for your mental health. You may think that exercising, eating nutritious foods, and getting adequate hours of sleep at night are only beneficial physically. But these things have a significant impact on your mental health by lowering your stress, improving your ability to focus, and increasing your resilience. These positive effects of self-care will enable you to quickly bounce back from difficult situations.
Catastrophising can happen to anyone as a result of a negative event. If it happens more often, it takes a toll on your mental health by causing anxiety and depression. On the other hand, existing mental illnesses result in cognitive distortions, which include catastrophic thinking. By practising the strategies above, you’ll be able to combat any unhelpful thoughts and think more rationally.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.