I’d like to allow you into the parallel universe that is my brain for a moment please…
My husband said he would be home at 7pm. It’s now 7.20pm and he’s not here. He’s obviously had an accident. He’s probably dead (or paralysed). Our poor kids. How will I tell them? How will we cope? We won’t cope. Our lives will be ruined. 7.21pm, he walks through the door, perfectly fine (and probably wondering why I’m over-the-moon ecstatic to see him – I mean it’s only Tuesday).
This is just one example of where my mind has been known to take me.
It’s called catastrophizing.
Where you let one irrational thought spiral out of control and become something far worse than it actually is.
I cannot adequately describe the panic, anxiety & feelings of hopelessness I experience when my brain has booked a one-way ticket to disaster-ville.
Catastrophizing is really common, so I’m certain a lot of you reading this will relate. Whether it’s thinking catastrophic thoughts about a current situation or imaging a catastrophe out of a future one.
Entering therapy, I wasn’t actually aware that what I was doing was an actual ‘thing’ or that there was a practical way to train your brain to stop (or at least manage it). But thankfully there is. And despite a near-lifetime of involuntarily thinking the worst, it only took a few goes at this exercise to turn it around for me.
The process is known as decatastrophizing.
In essence it’s all about challenging your thoughts. Working through the specific thought you’re catastrophizing about until you find a way to a more calm and rationalised state of mind.
It’s only a few simple questions encouraging examination of the thought, challenging it, allowing yourself to distance yourself from it & ultimately highlighting alternative (more positive) explanations for the situation.
When you start challenging yourself to find validity to your thoughts it takes the power away from them and gives it back to you.
So if we go back to my catastrophic thoughts regarding my husband, having worked through the questions (a full list of these coming up), I would now tell myself:
He’s most likely fine
He’s either stuck in traffic or left late (typical!)
He hasn’t contacted as he’s on a work call and can’t text as he’s driving
The first few times I worked through the thoughts I did it on a worksheet. Writing the feelings down in black & white often helps to calm you further and give real focus to what you’re working through. Once I knew the process well, I was able to complete it without a worksheet.
I’ve created a decatastrophizing worksheet for you to download, print & use here:calm-yourself-1
Additional ways to help you stop catastrophizing.
Once I had grown use to the process of challenging the truth of my thoughts, I began to more easily recognise when I was catastrophizing. As soon as a ‘catastrophic’ thought popped into my head I labelled it as such. This has often been enough to disrupt my thought process.
Top tip: Alan Carr, author of Positive Psychology – The science of happiness and human strengths, suggests using the word STOP whenever the thought appears.
The majority of my catastrophic thinking is triggered by the news. There is often only one message I receive from it – it’s a bad, bad world out there. I’m not saying I avoid the news completely, I don’t, it’s important to know what is going on, but I only expose myself to it when I’m in the right state of mind to absorb what I hear.
It doesn’t even need to be the news – certain TV show or movies can set you off. If you’re prone to catastrophizing, choose what you watch sensibly.
Or it could be particularly negative people you know. You don’t have to disconnect from them but if you know that they can trigger you, be mindful to not let their negativity influence your emotions, behaviour and choices.
Watch your timing
Sometimes if we’re tired or hormonal or right in the midst of something not so great happening, the catastrophic thoughts can take on a life of their own and you’re just not up to ‘reasoning’ with them.
Take the pressure off yourself, recognise you’re doing it, but don’t try to push yourself where – for whatever reason- you’re not mentally capable to go at that moment. Do not make or act on any decisions which arise when you’re in this heightened state. Come back to processing it all when you’re feeling calmer and make your decisions then.
A path well practised
As with the majority of exercises involving re-training your brain, it takes patience and practice. But essentially getting good at taking the weight away from any catastrophic thought allows you a clearer path to a calmer, happier state of mind.
Find out more about the therapy that taught me this technique: Understanding yourself: How EMDR therapy helped me develop as a person
Do you find yourself catastrophizing? Or are your thoughts often more reasoned? How do you deal with it if your thoughts start to spiral? Did you realise what you were doing was an actual thing and could potentially be managed? Do you have any tips? I’ll leave you with this one… NEVER Google your symptoms! Whatever you’d like to say, I’d love you to get in touch. Simply leave a comment in the box below!