Something Catastrophic is Going to Happen: About Negative Thoughts
There are lots of thinking traps out there – thoughts that aren’t helpful and that lead to difficult feelings and unwanted behaviors. One that I notice often in clients and in myself is the trap of catastrophic thinking.
What is catastrophic thinking?
Catastrophic thinking happens when you overestimate the worse possible outcomes that could happen for a situation. Your mind automatically generates lots of disastrous and frightening scenarios and you can find yourself getting “lost” in these catastrophic thoughts.
The way our minds work tells us a lot about how and why catastrophic thinking happens. An important tenet to keep in mind: our brains are wired to solve problems and keep us safe. Catastrophic thinking occurs when this process goes off-kilter.
Your Brain Solves Problems
Here's an example. You make plans to go hiking with friends this weekend. You don’t just enter this in your calendar and move on with your day. Chances are that you do some thinking and planning, thoughts like:
- What will the weather be like? What if it is hot? What if it rains?
- What kind of food should I bring? Will it be enough? Should I bring a sandwich?
- What if I get a blister? Should I pack bandages?
- What if I get a sunburn? Should I buy a higher SPF sun block?
Your mind does a great job of exploring potential scenarios (it might rain, it might be sunny, my shoes might give me a blister) and problem solving accordingly (check the weather, pack sunblock, wear thick socks). You’ve thought through some scenarios and some potential challenging situations and planned accordingly. You can now move on with your day and enjoy the hike this weekend.
Sometimes Your Mind Goes Too Far
However, perhaps your mind goes further. Somehow, those same great capacities to imagine and project into the future go into overdrive. You catastrophize, going way beyond what is necessary to plan for the unexpected and stay safe.
- What if there is an earthquake and I am stranded and nobody rescues me? I will die in the forest!
- What if I encounter a mountain lion and he attacks me? How will I fight him off? What if I lose the fight?
- What if I fall and break my leg? How will I get to a hospital?
- What if I get lost and run out of water and become dehydrated?
- And many, many more possibilities…
Why Catastrophic Thinking is a Problem
Keep in mind what I said earlier, your mind is wired to think this way. It helps to keep us out of danger but hurts when it keeps us from living our lives the way we value. Something important to consider is the cost of buying into these thoughts. When a negative and catastrophic thought comes into your mind (e.g. “What if I fall down a cliff and nobody can rescue me and I die?”) and you buy into the thought, it can often lead to behaviors that aren’t desirable (“I’ll just stay in this weekend.”) instead of living your valued life (“I really value the time I spend with my friends. I really value being outdoors.”)
Don’t Buy into the Catastrophic Thought
The key, in my opinion, is to address the negative thought. There are lots of ways to do this and therapy is a great way to gain tools to address catastrophic thoughts. Some tools include challenging the thoughts, stopping the thought, and, my favorite, not buying into the thought.
How do you not buy into a thought? By looking at a thought as just a thought, rather than a reality you are living. In other words, stepping back from the thought and looking at it for exactly what it is, a thought, rather than your actual experience.
Notice the difference between these two:
I might fall off a cliff while I’m hiking and I’ll be badly hurt.
I am having the thought that I might fall off a cliff while I’m hiking and I’ll be badly hurt.
Do you notice a subtle but crucial shift? In the first thought, you are experiencing it – the fear comes up, you can imagine yourself falling off the cliff, being hurt, not getting help, maybe even dying. Your imagination and fear takes over and it is like you are there watching it happen. In the second thought, you are placing a tiny bit of space between you and the thought. You are saying, “this is an interesting thought, but I’m not going to buy it.”
This work takes some time but is worth practicing. Also, there are plenty of self help books with exercises for dealing with negative thoughts, including Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Regardless of how you choose to address negative and catastrophic thoughts, taking time to practice this can lead to a new relationship to the thoughts and more flexible ways of living the life you value.