Catastrophe to calmness: A technique to calm your worrying thoughts

Catastrophe to calmness: a technique to stop catastrophizing. Image of her eyes over white background

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. 

decatastrophizing - how to calm your worrying thoughts. Image of Cropped shot of dark skinned woman sits crossed legs, wears pyjamas, makes notes in diary, focused aside, blank copy space against domestic interior. Blogger creates publication for blog in notebook

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.

Labelling

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.  

Avoid triggers

How to stop catastrophizing, avoid triggers. Image of Young woman watching TV in living room, back view

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. 

Catastrophe to calmness:  A technique to calm your worrying thoughts.  How to stop catastrophizing.  Image of your woman running through a field holding a bunch of balloons

‘Worry never robs tomorrow of it’s sorrow, it only saps today of it’s joy’

Leo Buscaglia

Find out more about the therapy that taught me this technique:  Understanding yourself: How EMDR therapy helped me develop as a person

Catastrophe to Calmness, how to calm your worrying thoughts. Do you catastrophize? Where something small suddenly becomes a catastrophe. Includes decatastrophizing worksheet. #catastrophizing #mentalwellbeing #wellbeing #calmness
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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! 

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8 thoughts on “Catastrophe to calmness: A technique to calm your worrying thoughts

  1. I loved this Alex – and in fact, I could have done with this on the school run this morning when my daughter realised it was her clarinet exam and she hadn’t practised – I calmed her down enough to tell her to go through with it, telling her it wouldn’t be as bad as she thought – she has just come home and told me it went really well and she didn’t make any mistakes. I have downloaded the sheet which will come in handy for both of us I think! Loved your first paragraph – made me smile …I think we all do that! x

    1. I’m so pleased it went well for her! It’s definitely easy to let our thoughts run away with us isn’t it?! I really hope the worksheet helps and thank you so much for reading xx

  2. Oh, it’s like you’re inside my brain.
    For example (sorry for the TMI) but like last night, I found a particularly heinous zit on my boob and I’m like OMG STAGE 4 BREAST CANCER IMMA WRITE MY OWN OBITUARY.
    Wow.
    I’ve also been working on this with my therapist and she’s given me pretty much the same work sheet you shared here. It is very helpful but it does take a lot of work and practice to separate the panicking part of your brain from the logical part.
    I’ve also found it helps me to put the shoe on the other foot — talk to myself as if I were talking to someone else going through a (potential) crisis. For some reason I’m able to dish out advice and calmness to others better than I can for myself. Sigh. Here’s to progress?

    1. Stacy I am a glad it’s not just me!!! Yes, completely agree it’s easier when you ‘act like a friend’ to yourself. The fact that you (we) are taking the time to recognise what we’re doing and work to seperate ourselves from it is definitely progress, just time, patience & practice my friend. Thanks for reading!

  3. I read the first two sentences and couldn’t believe how much it felt like I was reading about myself! I have done this a few times before and I’m currently having therapy too. Thank you for sharing and for the worksheet, I’ve downloaded it and I’m going to use it should I end up in that situation again. I did successfully spend an evening in on my own at the weekend whilst my boyfriend went on a night out with his colleagues, and managed not to engage in some of the usual safety behaviours I engage in, so that’s some progress! (P. S. I never use anything other than the NHS website to search my symptoms and even then, I do so sparingly!) Here’s to patience, practice and decatastrophising 🙌🏻

    1. Therapy is great for helping us understand our behaviours and provide tools for managing. I really hope you find the worksheet helpful, it really helped me to reason with myself the first few times I used one. I’m so pleased to hear of the progress you’ve made and am completely with you on the ‘sparingly’ checking the NHS website – thank you for reading and sharing your experience x

  4. I love the name, and never knew it was called that! I had a tendency to do this with my sons, but am much more rational now. It was horrible when it struck tough. I remember in particular, watching my eldest son sleeping in the night as I wanted to see his chest rise and fall. I was convinced that I needed to keep a close eye on him!I think as life has gone on, and I have realised that there is REAL shiz to worry about, it made my brain far more rational and calm. On the most part lol!

    1. I didn’t either until recently – sort of took a lot of ‘the edge’ off of it for me when I was able to label it, if that makes sense?

      I’ve done that a lot with my kids too – but like you, I’ve stopped it now – well mostly too 😉 he he. Thanks so much reading and for sharing your thoughts Kerry xx

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