How to Deal with Catastrophic Thinking

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.

The Science

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.

It’s simple.

  • 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.

That’s it.

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.

6 Ways to Stop Late Night Worry

Have you noticed that anxiety seems to be more acute late at night? It is. This is particularly true if you are dealing with a problem that you haven’t found a way to resolve. The truth is, anxiety is almost always worse late at night or in the early morning. Whatever bothers you during the day takes on a whole new life after you climb into bed, and then some.

You don’t have the distractions of activity that you have during the daytime when you’re working or interacting with other people. Even in the early evening, you’re getting dinner, watching TV, talking to your partner, dealing with kids, or doing chores. There is a lot of activity and your mind is occupied.

In the late evening hours after everyone is in bed, those distractions are gone and you become aware of emotions or thoughts that have been mostly underground until now.

This is a double-edged sword. Sometimes being up late at night while everyone else is in bed is extremely soothing. You are able to relax because there is nothing you’re supposed to be doing, and you feel temporarily off the hook. You can let down.

On the other hand, if you have a problem that you haven’t been able to solve, this time can be torturing.

This is particularly true if you are trying to drift off to sleep, and you get those repetitive gut wrenching thoughts about what can go wrong or what awful consequences are coming down the pike if you don’t come up with a solution.

It’s as though a little door opened in your mind and let in a hoard of anxiety gremlins that are racing around and creating endless chaos.

It feels awful, yes? Truly it does.

I think what’s even more debilitating is that once this worry machine is in motion, your thinking gets more and more catastrophic.

  • A slight pain in your neck turns into a heart attack that could happen any moment.
  • The bill you forgot to pay or can’t pay on time turns into 100 points down on your credit report, and a rejection for the new car loan you need.
  • The funny sound you hear must be a plumbing leak that’s creating mold in the roof and contaminating the air in your house.
  • The odd look you got from you boss today must mean he’s really unhappy with you and your job could on the line.

All sounds a little nuts, but nighttime worry mind is nuts!

There are some things you can do to avoid it and keep it under control.

#1 Keep your to do list out of your head.

Make your to do list before you go to bed, and put the tasks that need to be done on your calendar. If you do this consistently, you relieve your mind from having to remember and review the list over and over. Once it’s written and the plan is in place, your mind drops it.

Even better is to make a to do list for the whole week, and include on it everything that needs to be done for work, home, and personal stuff.

My weekly to do list contains the dates bills need to be paid, grocery shopping done, laundry, writing, and all of my work tasks. It’s all in one place, so nothing is forgotten.

#2 Tackle avoidance.

Make a list right now all of the things you have been avoiding that hang out in the back of your mind and cause you worry.

Do you need to renegotiate a credit card payment? Do you have a little discoloration on your skin that you’ve decided must be skin cancer but you haven’t had it checked out? Are there phone calls you should have returned, but now you think it’s too late to return them ,but they haunt you and you are avoiding seeing those people? Is there a work task you’ve been shoving to the back burner, but it’s gonna erupt and cause a big problem if you don’t do it soon?

Write these things down and do them in the next three days! Make that doctor’s appointment, call your credit card company, and return the phone calls, finish the work project. You will be so very relieved, and those things won’t float around in your subconsicious mind and tortue you at night.

#3 Solve problems at the right time.

Say this mantra to yourself late at night when you begin worrying:

“I ALWAYS solve problems easier and more effectively in the light of day than in the middle of the night.”

This is actually totally true. Think about it. How many times have you worried about something as you’re lying awake in bed at night, and then come up with a solution the next day or over the next several days that was much easier than what you had anticipated.

Your best thinking and problem solving occurs when you are fresh. I also use the mantra,

“I can’t solve this problem right now. Sleep is a better option, so that I will be able to think tomorrow.”

It helps.

#4 Don’t lie in bed worrying.

Interrupt the worry gremlins and take control of our runaway mind. If you really feel like you can’t stop your racing mind, then get up and turn on the light. Watch TV for awhile, or read, or do something that is distracting to reset your brain. Then drift off to sleep.

#5 Engage in a regular system of relaxation.

There are 3 things that absolutely help reduce anxiety. These are:

  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Healthy diet

You’ve heard this before, but have you really considered it?

Meditation

Meditation is a method of actually training your mind to focus and stay calm, even when challenging situations arise. Regular meditation creates mental space and gives you some emotional distance from problems so that you can stand back and approach them with clarity and calm. The key is regularity.

Exercise

Regular exercise enhances the production of Serotonin and Dopamine. These are your mood neurotransmitters in the brain associated with pleasure, attention, executive function, and mood stability. Exercise raises your mood, clears your mind, reduces your level of anxiety, and allows you to think better.

Diet

The body and mind are intimately connected. If you eat a highly acidic, empty carb, high saturated fat, and sugar laden diet, you can count on feeling tired, moody, confused, and anxious. Do your research and choose a diet that consists primarily of whole foods, healthy fats, complex carbs, and natural sugars (in fruits and veggies). Then transition to it until it is a habit.

#6 Set yourself up for good sleep.

Keep a good bedtime routine. Try the following:

  • Avoid caffeine or other stimulants in the evening.
  • Avoid alcohol in the evening. It will put you to sleep, but then keep you awake later in the night.
  • Go to bed and get up at roughly the same time everyday. Your body keeps an internal clock, and keeping the same hours makes for sounder and better sleep.
  • Keep your sleeping area cool and dark.
  • Exercise earlier in the day or evening. Exercise stimulates the body. Done at the right time of the day, it enhances your ability to relax and sleep. Before bed, it can keep you awake.
  • Avoid heavy food before bed that can produce acid reflux or indigestion.
  • Watch out for evening naps on the couch. They feel great when you doze off, but leave you wide awake in bed later on.
  • Stay hydrated in general, but don’t drink a ton of water or liquid before bed. You’ll be up and down, and have difficulty staying asleep.

What is the one thing you are going to do today that will give you some control over your worry brain?

5 Ways to Shift Monday Morning Anxiety

Okay, so tell me if you’ve been here before . . .

I started my Monday morning off silently complaining to myself about all the stuff I had to do in the week ahead. Not enough time, too many intrusions, how will I ever get my blog writing done, work on my book, see clients I have scheduled, take care of my dogs, do house stuff, and on and on and on . . .

As I’m chugging coffee and letting my imagination build a giant case for a bad week, I realized what I was doing.

Whoa! I checked my runaway thoughts, which were plunging me into a mammoth feeling of overwhelm and helplessness.

I made the decision to turn them around.

Here’s how I did that.

I pulled out my iPad and started writing.

#1  I wrote down 5 things that are really good about this week coming up.

My purpose in doing this was to shift my focus and perceptions away from the limited thoughts I was having. I was locking myself into a “no way out” reality, which was stirring up feelings of anxiety.

Anxiety is paralyzing and prevents creativity and action. It actually shrinks your mind.

The truth is, our daily reality is driven in part by the circumstances and experiences we encounter, but more by how we perceive, react to, and feel about what is happening.

We interpret everything through our own internal lens. That lens is made up of our beliefs, personal history, values, and habits. Our reality is constructed in large part by our perceptions.

Unfortunately, we tend to default to the most negative and narrow perceptions. It takes awareness and conscious effort to instill habits to counteract that tendency.

By writing down 5 things that would be good about the coming week, I was shifting my perceptive lens to a more realistic balance between positive and negative.

It worked. I started feeling better.

#2  I listed 3 things I wanted to accomplish this week.

I placed them on my calendar so I didn’t have to think about them until it was time to do them. One of them had several steps, so I put each of those steps on the calendar separately.

A sense of accomplishment always helps you feel better. If you can bring those accomplishments into focus by defining them and scheduling them, you’re already on the way to a better week.

Scheduling them on the calendar has the added payoff of relieving you from having to rehash the list over and over in your mind. That gives you some mental space.

#3  I thought about what has improved in my life.

I thought about jobs I’ve had in the past, and I had an immediate appreciation for where I am now.

Whatever your present circumstances are, look at what has improved. You may not be in the job you want, or live in the home you want, or even be in the relationship you want, but if you have awareness of those things, then you are on your way to making changes.

Be grateful for anything that is better than it was before. That will help you create the momentum to make more improvements.

#4  I visualized the end of the week, and felt good about meeting my three goals.

I felt a sense of accomplishment even before getting there which helped put me in a good frame of mind.

Visualize your success at the end of the week. Imagine feeling good about what you did accomplish. This will not only help you get there, it will begin to set up a pattern of accomplishment for the weeks that follow.

This creates momentum, momentum moves you to action, and action gets results. Go!

#5  I gave gratitude for 5 things in my life, and for what I can do right now.

“Giving gratitude” is in vogue currently, and if you’ve read much in the way of self-help and success blogs or books, you’ve seen a lot written on this subject. I have also written a blog about keeping a gratitude journal.

The reason it is so popular is because it works. Keeping track of what you are thankful for brings more things to be thankful for. It also helps you balance that negative default I mentioned above.

Be sure to include in your list gratitude for what you can do right now to make life better, or accomplish what is important to you. Even if all you can do is change your attitude or frame of mind, this is progress.

Start your day with gratitude, and you will reshape how you perceive and approach what’s ahead. Works every time.

Have more ideas? Do you have any other tricks or practices that you use to change your negative train of thought as you approach each day, and especially on Monday? What have you found that works?

Consistency is the Key!

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