Catastrophic thinking is a debilitating source of anxiety that plagues a lot of us. Most simply, it means jumping to the worst-case scenario when thinking about a situation or future event.
Your husband doesn’t call you on his way home from work like he usually does, and you decide he must have been in an accident and is probably dead.
Your boss tells you as you leave work for the day that he’d like to talk to you the next morning, and you decide he wants to fire you.
You have a bad headache in the late afternoon and you worry it’s an aneurysm.
Sometimes catastrophic thinking involves a stream of thoughts that build on each other and race through your mind like a machine gun firing. Pow, pow, pow!
My boss is going to fire me on the spot, and then I’ll have no money to pay my bills, and I won’t be able to find another job like this one because I won’t have a good recommendation, and I’ll end up getting evicted from my apartment, and I’ll have to declare bankruptcy, and my kids will lose their friends because we won’t be able to stay at the same school, but where can I live anyway without any money . . . my life is ruined!
This is actually what happens to people that are prone to anxiety and overwhelm. It can feel devastating.
If you’re one of those people, or if you’ve ever experienced it, then you know it can happen in a heartbeat and can become a chronic pattern that shades many thoughts during the day.
Simple things like going to the grocery store can bring on an onslaught of what-ifs that ultimately leave you exhausted and stressed.
It’s a terrible thing to get sucked into, and that is exactly what it feels like: being sucked into a vortex of whirling negative energy and fear you can’t get out of.
There is a bit of science to it that can help you understand what happens. It always begins with some event or some initiating thought that gets things moving fast. In the above scenario, it was your boss telling you he’d like to talk to you the next day.
That initiating event alerts the older part of your brain which is referred to as the limbic system. The limbic system, which includes the amygdala, is in charge of emotions. It alerts us when there is any perceived danger in the environment.
Once alerted, we go into a fight or flight mode. Our muscles tense up, our adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and we pump out adrenaline. We are braced for attack!
Meantime, the thinking part of the brain, which is referred to as the prefrontal cortex, is shut down and unavailable. We freeze, and literally we can’t think. We are in a high alert reactive mode.
Have you ever been lying in bed and think you hear someone breaking into your house? You become paralyzed and can hardly breathe. You’re acutely focused on every little sound, and your body is tense. Your heart pounds, your mouth gets dry, and your stomach is in a knot.
Thoughts of foreboding or pending disaster can do the same thing, even if there is no physical evidence to support the thought. When your boss tells you he wants to see you the next day, you get a signal of danger and your limbic brain sets in motion a red alert that leads to the inevitable worst-case scenario of getting fired.
I had this very scenario happen once. As I left work for the day, my boss told me he’d like to talk to me the next morning. I obsessed all night about it and was sure I had missed something or done something wrong and was going to be in trouble. I imagined getting fired. I was a single mom at the time, so the fear escalated until I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep.
When I met with my boss the next day, he wanted to tell me what a good job I had been doing on a project we’d been working on. That was the whole thing. I had put myself through hell for nothing!
What To Do
There are six things you can try that can help you calm catastrophic thoughts. Here they are.
#1 Look for Distortions in Your Thinking
Become a scientist, and turn your attention to examining the validity of your thoughts. An easy way to do this is start with the worst-case scenario you’ve already created, and then ask yourself what the best-case scenario might be. Expand it. What are all the best-case possibilities you can imagine?
Back to my boss, the best-case scenario might have been that he was going to tell what a great job I’m doing, and offer me a raise and promotion.
Write it Out
To unload your mind, write out your scenarios.
- First write your worst-case scenario.
- Second, write your best-case scenario next to your worst.
- Keep writing until you have emptied out all of the possible best and worst-case scenarios you are running through your mind.
- Now look at them realistically and figure out what’s a most reasonable likelihood.
In my situation, a more reasonable best-case scenario would have been that my boss wanted to talk about some new project or maybe brainstorm ideas, and at worst, there was something I needed to correct or improve. Either way, it would have been all right and doable.
As soon as you step back and make yourself imagine best-case scenarios in opposition to the disasters you have predicted, you are unlocking the freeze on your thinking brain and you can engage it. This means your prefrontal cortex is back in the game and your limbic system will calm down. Your anxiety will decrease and your body processes will return to normal. You will get your mind back under control.
#2 Square Breathing
Square breathing is a simple technique you can use to bring the state of anxious arousal down so that you can think again. This works well if you are a little anxious, or are just starting to feel anxious. If you’re in a full panic mode, it might not work, but it’s good to give it a try and get used to using it as soon as you begin to feel anxious.
- Take a deep breath by breathing in through your nose slowly to a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Now exhale through your mouth slowly for a count of four.
- Do the whole thing four times.
By using square breathing, you break up your anxious thoughts and bring down the arousal in your body and mind, so that you can take a second look at your fear using more logic.
#3 Review Previous Successes or Scenarios
This one is very helpful for broadening your mental perspective, and backing out of the tunnel of disaster you have fallen into.
When the thoughts arise, ask yourself how you have handled similar situations in the past, or how things have worked out given the same circumstances.
- Did a disaster occur, or did things resolve themselves?
- Did you handle things with good, or at least reasonable results?
- What are your successes?
I’ve seen a lot of college students in therapy, mostly for anxiety. They fret over passing courses, finishing their degrees, and getting jobs. These are all normal anxieties, but they sometimes engage in catastrophic thinking to the point that they can’t perform.
By looking back over their previous successes, they are reminded that they always have gotten the work done even when it seemed impossible, and they performed well or well enough to meet their end goals.
Reviewing previous successes under similar circumstances is both calming and reassuring, and allows the anxiety to recede, which in turn releases the mind from paralysis and allows you to move forward again.
#4 Make a Plan of Action
When you are afraid, the best response is to take action. Figure out exactly what you are afraid of, and then make a plan to take some kind of action, complete with steps, and begin acting on those steps.
Taking even one step will reduce the anxiety.
For the student, the plan of action might be to consult a tutor and set up the first appointment. Or it might be joining a study group, or meeting with the professor to find out what else can be done. It might simply be to remember previous successes, and then let go of the anxiety and get to work.
Taking action makes you feel back in control, and when you have control, you are no longer anxious.
There’s a great book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. She says that what we actually fear is that we won’t be able to handle something, not the thing itself. The way to get past that idea is to take action in spite of the fear, and along side of it. By taking even a small step, you will lift your paralysis and start moving forward again. As you take more steps, you gain momentum and the fear subsides.
#5 Keep a Mantra Handy
This is a favorite. Create mantras for yourself that you can use when you start to think catastrophically. My favorite one is “I can use my brain to think about this.” Just saying that seems to calm racing thoughts, and allows my thinking brain to be activated.
Some people prefer mantras like “I can handle what’s ahead” or “I always get things done once I start.”
Whatever works for you, create a mantra that is meaningful and that will help you switch gears when you start to become anxious.
Write the mantra down, and post it places where you will see it. You can put it on your phone, on a pad next to your bed, on your bathroom mirror, or wherever you are likely to look.
#6 Albert Ellis’s ABCDE Method
Last is Albert Ellis’s ABCDE Method. It incorporates many of the ideas I’ve already listed above, but it’s a simple compact 5 step action plan that you can use any time you feel the need. Here it is:
A is the activating event.
It’s the original trigger for your anxiety. Maybe you have to give a speech, take an important exam, or perhaps you’re worried about a possible medical problem, or your child seems depressed. Identify it and write it down.
B represents your beliefs about the situation.
What are the actual thoughts you are having about it, and what have you convinced yourself of already? Identify them and write them down.
C stands for the consequences of your irrational beliefs.
What are you imagining will be the outcome of your beliefs about the situation? What disaster have you conjured up?
D is for disputing the irrational beliefs you have created.
Challenging them by asking these 5 questions:
- Is the belief realistic? Can I confirm it through experiment? Is it based on facts?
- Have I been in this situation before? What happened? What did I do to work with it?
- Is the belief plausible within the context of the situation?
- What are other possibilities besides those I’m thinking?
- What’s the most probable explanation or outcome?
E stands for the new effects relative to changing you’re interpretation of the situation.
You can now create a more plausible and constructive view based on thinking, rooting out cognitive distortions, and running your beliefs through logic.
Albert Ellis, Ph.D., is a well-known psychologist who developed a treatment modality called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in 1955. His work has contributed to the emergence of today’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), with a focus on the role of cognition in the generation and treatment of psychological disorders, especially anxiety and depression.