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Catastrophic Thinking

A common cognitive distortion that many people, especially those with anxiety, tend to get caught up in is worst case scenario thinking or “catastrophizing”. It may happen at work, when you are home alone, while hanging out with friends, on a date, spending time with your children—you get the idea, it can happen anywhere. It may also lead to other anxiety symptoms, such as panic, racing heart, or sweaty palms.

The thoughts may sound something like this: “If I drive on the freeway while it’s raining, I’ll get in a car accident”. “If I mess this project up, the team will be so upset at me and I will get fired.” “If I start dating again, no one will like me and I will end up alone and miserable.”

Our brains tend to take a “better safe than sorry” approach to risk-analysis; therefore, our mind comes up with various possible outcomes that could happen. But you need to ask yourself, what is the likelihood of this happening? Most often your brain is thinking in terms of possibility, not probability.

Another reason we may tend to catastrophize is an innate desire to avoid; therefore, finding excuses to why things will not work out or why things will lead to a horrible situation. This leaves us frozen, unwilling to attempt to even try—keeping us in our “safe and comfortable” mode. The problem is that if we do not ever leave that safe and comfortable mode, we do not grow and we miss out on a lot that life has to offer.

If you can relate to this type of thinking and you notice that it happens more often than not, there are certain coping strategies that may be useful including:

Practicing acceptance. Reality is this—there will be good days, and there will be bad days. Just because you had one bad memory, where something really horrible did happen, does not mean that if you attempt to engage in the same activity the same result will occur.

Recognizing when thoughts start to spiral. Imagine this: you wake up in the morning with a splitting headache and your mind starts to race with irrational thoughts… “What if it is a brain tumor?” … “I need to get to the ER right now” … “They will tell me that there is nothing they can do and I don’t have much time left” … These thoughts can go on and on if you let them. Practice reeling in those thoughts and countering them with at least two other possibilities of what this headache could mean. “Perhaps I am dehydrated” or “I think I am having a caffeine withdrawal right now”.

Thought-stopping techniques. Some common techniques include saying “Stop!” whenever these thoughts occur. Or keeping a rubber band on your wrist, snapping it whenever one of these thoughts passes through your mind. Some people even keep tally marks in a journal of how many times a day a catastrophic thought pops up.

Practice self-care. These types of thoughts tend to pop up more often when you are tired, hungry, bored, or stressed. Take time to nourish yourself throughout the day. Listen to your body and learn to anticipate what it may need in any given moment. Are you drinking enough water? Getting enough sleep? Eating a solid three meals throughout the day? What about exercise?

If you have had a history of catastrophic thinking and nothing seems to be helping, it may be time to speak with a licensed therapist. There may be some underlying anxiety, self-esteem issues, depression, burnout, etc. that may be contributing to these irrational thought patterns. Here at 253 Therapy and Consult we can help you minimize this type of thinking and help you learn and implement skills to combat catastrophic thoughts. Call us today to schedule an appointment!

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