Unraveling Catastrophic Thinking: Why It's Dangerous and How to Tackle It
Imagine you've applied for your dream job and have now been selected for the second round of interviews. Do you immediately start imagining rejection, worrying about how it will affect your self-esteem? Do you tell yourself something like: "If I fail this, I'm a total failure?"
The habit of blowing problems out of proportion, expecting the worst, or believing that your situation is much worse than it is, is called catastrophizing. This tendency to focus on the negative served as an evolutionary mechanism. We needed it to be cautious and vigilant, anticipating danger and avoiding it at all costs. However, whether such thinking is still necessary today is debatable.
Let's explore the main causes and signs of catastrophic thinking, as well as simple techniques to break free from these toxic thought patterns.
What Leads to Catastrophic Thinking?
Catastrophic thinking can arise from traumatic events in the past that reshaped your worldview or reinforced beliefs like the world being a bad place, people not being trustworthy, and taking risks leading to harm.
It can also be linked to mental health and chronic pain conditions, including:
- General anxiety: Research shows a connection between this way of thinking and high levels of anxiety. People prone to neuroses often react strongly to events, making them more susceptible to catastrophic thinking.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD may fixate on the possibility of major harmful events, which can lead to catastrophic thinking.
- Depression: Prolonged depression may cause individuals to ruminate on negative emotions, leading them to imagine worst-case scenarios.
Interestingly, a catastrophic mindset can also be a result of seeking pleasure. Clinical psychologist Linda Blair explains this mechanism simply: First, we imagine a terrible scenario, and when our fears aren't realized, we feel immense relief. Our brain craves this positive feeling, pushing us to catastrophize again.
The Pitfalls of Catastrophizing
Studies suggest that up to 70% of our thoughts are naturally negative. We tend to remember bad experiences more vividly than good ones and are more concerned about potential losses than excited about gains.
This negativity bias is an evolutionary tool, helping us stay cautious in uncertain situations. While it might be beneficial in some cases, catastrophic thinking isn't entirely harmless.
It can lead to depression: Psychiatrist David Burns lists catastrophizing as one of 10 cognitive distortions that can contribute to depressed moods and depressive disorders.
It intensifies pain: When a person imagines terrible illnesses or injuries, they may experience heightened pain and discomfort.
7 Tips to Manage Catastrophic Thinking
Instead of immediately jumping to worst-case scenarios, you can use these practical tips and techniques to handle catastrophic thinking:
#1. Understand that life has its share of challenges, with both good and bad days. Experiencing one bad day doesn't mean all days will be bad.
#2. Learn to identify irrational thoughts and recognize the pattern of catastrophizing. For example, you might start with a thought like, "My leg hurts from yesterday's workout," and then spiral into worry, assuming the pain will worsen, and you may have a serious injury. Recognizing these thoughts will help you manage them better.
#3. Consider alternative outcomes instead of fixating on negative possibilities. For instance, ask yourself, "What if I face my fear and try? For example, speaking in front of an audience or applying for a job I like."
JK Rowling completed her first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," in 1995. Her literary agent sent the manuscript to 12 publishing houses, but it faced rejection everywhere. However, a year later, the small London publishing house Bloomsbury accepted the manuscript, despite its editor-in-chief's doubts about the potential success of "children's books." JK Rowling persisted, and through her determination, she has become one of the most renowned writers of all time. Just imagine what would have happened if she had given in to catastrophic thinking and given up after the initial rejection.
#4. Try to challenge your thoughts by writing down your fears and reading them in a distorted, cartoonish voice. This can help reduce their impact, making it easier to handle them calmly.
#5. Avoid getting carried away with "What if..." thinking focused on the future. Stay present and describe your surroundings or make a to-do list for the day to keep your mind grounded.
#6. To diminish anxiety, imagine various optimistic and realistic scenarios for the event. Recognize that these are merely possibilities with equal chances of occurring.
#7. Eliminate generalizing words like "never," "nothing," "always," and "everything" as they can escalate anxiety. Instead, counter these generalizations with specific examples. For instance, if you think you "always fail," recall situations when you succeeded.
The brain processes information not only constructively but can also lead us into traps, and this happens quite often. Hundreds of cognitive distortions, including catastrophic thinking, have already been discovered. For instance, Wikipedia describes more than 200 examples. So, be mindful not to get caught in these patterns!