Everyone gets caught up in worst-case scenario thinking, or catastrophizing at times. However, when you catastrophize, you reinforce the negative and this can become your normal way of thinking about the future. This can lead to anxiety and depression as you become caught up in a negative thought spiral always asssuming the worst. In order to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety and start feeling better, you need to stop catastrophizing. Below are 5 ways you can stop catastrophizing so you can start feeling better about the future.
What Is Catastrophizing
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion, an unrealistic, unconscious way of thinking that reinforces the negative. It is when you imagine the worst-case scenario is the most likely outcome of a situation. One way of doing this is by taking a current situation that didn’t go the way you planned and believing that it will end in disaster. For instance, your work presentation didn’t go well so you imagine getting fired and ending up homeless. Even though this is a very unlikely scenario, your imagination takes over and you begin to believe this will happen. Catastrophizing also occurs when you think about your future and imagine all the ways things can go wrong. This creates a pessimistic outlook and possibly even a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and a future of doom and gloom.
Why You Catastrophize
As a thinking being, you are able to remember past events and imagine future possibilities. This can be a good thing as it enables you to utilize your past to help you achieve your goals and plan for the future. However, this can also be problematic as it can lead to catastrophizing. You may believe that thinking about the worst-case scenario helps you prepare for it. Catastrophizing can even be a learned behavior as you witnessed your parents doing this and adopted it for yourself. It is related to anxiety disorders and even posttraumatic stress disorder. When you catastrophize, your brain releases cortisol and your amygdala (fight, flight, or freeze response) reacts to the danger that you are creating. While you may catastrophize initially to try and make yourself feel better, it actually causes you to feel worse. You reinforce the fear and helplessness you feel related to negative thoughts and end up feeling hopeless. If you notice yourself catastrophizing, there are things you can do to help.
1. Feel Your Feelings
Catastrophizing keeps the focus on the future instead of the present. This stops you from feeling your current emotions. Instead of working through your feelings, catastrophizing lets you avoid them. Although this may seem helpful at first, avoiding your emotions intensifies them and can lead to feeling additional negative emotions. In order to lessen the emotional impact of difficult feelings, you need to feel them so you can process them. Spend some time everyday identifying and feeling your feelings. When you are able to process your feelings, catastrophizing can significantly decrease.
2. Write It Down
If you keep ruminating on the worst-case outcome, writing it down can help. Writing down what you are catastrophizing can stop you from constantly thinking about it. Putting it down on paper engages the left hemisphere of your brain which can help you view the situation more logically. As you reread what you wrote, you can look at it more objectively. Doing this enables you to alter it so that it becomes more realistic. Instead of accepting your catastrophizing as the absolute truth, you can begin to notice the flaws in your thought process.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness can stop you from focusing on the imagined problematic outcome. When you are being mindful, you are fully present in the here and now without judging it. Catastrophizing is future oriented. It requires you to focus on an imagined future. In order to stay in the present moment, you can engage all of your senses and ground yourself in the present moment. You can look around you and name 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Noticing your breath, breathing from your diaphragm, or meditating are other ways you can practice mindfulness. As you become more mindful, catastrophizing will decrease.
4. Follow It Through
Sometimes, following a catastrophic thought all the way through can be helpful. By following it all the way through, you can end up going beyond the feared outcome to ways that you can cope with it. Doing this can help calm your anxiety. This enables you to notice some of the things that are within your control. If you follow it through, you may also begin to notice the flaws in assuming the worst. Then you can begin to look at the situation more realistically.
Reframing your negative thoughts can help you stop catastrophizing. In order to reframe your thoughts, you have to pay attention to your negative thinking patterns. When you catch yourself catastrophizing, challenge these thoughts. Come up with at least three other ways of thinking about the situation. Doing this causes your brain to start considering other possibilities that aren’t as negative. Then you can replace the worst-case outcome with something more positive. Reframing your thoughts also changes the feelings associated with your thoughts. This can help you feel more optimistic and hopeful about your future.
If you notice yourself catastrophizing, you can try the above tips. As you start taking control of your thoughts, feelings of anxiety and hopelessness can improve. However, if catastrophizing is having a negative impact on your emotional well-being and functioning, therapy can help. With practice, you can learn how to stop catastrophizing so you can have more hope for the future.