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  • 3 Tools to Stop Catastrophic Thinking

    What Exactly is Catastrophic Thinking?

    Catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, is an irrational thought, a cognitive distortion, an error in thinking that leads people to focus on the worse case scenario. The thought tends to be overblown and the language used tends to be dramatic. For example, if you have a flat tire on your way to work, an associated catastrophic thought might me, “I am going to be late, get fired and it will be the worst day of my life.”

    Catastrophic thinking can be associated with mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. It can also lead to problems with interpersonal relationships and a less fulfilling overall life. People who engage in catastrophic thinking are less likely to take the risk of applying for the new job or asking for the raise.

    Most of us are susceptible to catastrophic thinking from time to time. There are several techniques that I, as a psychologist, use to correct my own catastrophic thoughts and to help my patients correct theirs. Many of these techniques stem from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In the 1960’s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck pioneered research on cognitive distortions in the development of a treatment method known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of talk therapy in which people learn to identify, interrupt, and correct dysfunctional thought patterns such as catastrophizing.

    3 Techniques That Can Help

    The top three techniques, or coping skills, that I use to correct catastrophic thinking are examining the evidence, finishing the thought, and staying mindful and present-based.

    1. Examining the Evidence

    To effectively examine the evidence, we must look at all the evidence. That is, we must look at evidence to support the thought and evidence against the thought. I encourage my patients to think like a detective. “Just the facts ma’am.” Feelings are strong but they are not always facts. “I feel like I am going to lose my job” or “I am afraid that I am going to lose my job” are not factual statements. Would this evidence hold up in a court of law or are there holes in your logic? Let’s use the “flat tire means I will be fired” example. The fact that support this thought might include: Chronic tardiness are grounds for termination. Facts against this thought could be: Nobody has been terminated when they had a reasonable explanation for being late. It would be my first time being late and my boss is pretty understanding. Usually, when you look at the big picture, “all the evidence,” there is less evidence for the catastrophic possibility. Examining all the evidence, helps us see that there are possibilities other than the worst case scenario.

    2.  Finishing The Thought

    One problem with distorted thinking is that we get stuck at a certain place in the thought process, the problem. It’s helpful to move to a solution-focused approach. When I find myself stuck in a catastrophic thought, I encourage myself to finish the thought. I ask myself, ok…so then what. So, you get a flat tire, are late to work, and are terminated. Ok, then what? Well, that would be awful! Ok, but then what. So, there you are with no job and in need of a job. Have you ever been in need of a job before? What did you do? Shift the thought to a productive one…I would apply for another job. Right…so, if you lose your job, it would be a major hassle. It might even be scary. But there are actions to take that would be productive and helpful. And more than likely, you’ll get another job.

    3.  Mindful, Present-based Thinking

    The third technique is actually the opposite of the second. Instead of projecting into the future and finding solutions, mindful, present-based thinking encourages you to stay in the here-and-now. Okay, well, we’ll deal with termination if that happens. In the meantime, I am safe and I know how to fix a flat tire. At this very moment, everything is okay. By staying mindful, you de-escalate the emotions which allow you to be more calm and more effective. You can cross all those catastrophic bridges when and if you get to them, but right now, everything is okay.

    When To Seek Help

    Someone should consider seeing a professional, a psychologist, when they have difficulties correcting their own catastrophic thoughts or when these thoughts lead to panic, anxiety, or depression. Other problems that a therapist can help with that are often associated with catastrophic thoughts are avoidance behaviors or problems with sleep. There are times when people become preoccupied with their catastrophic thoughts and spend excessive amount of time obsessing or ruminating over these thoughts. Professional help should be sought in the case. Therapy can help.

    Author: Dr. Beverly Pedroche