How To Stop Catastrophizing And Assuming The Worst
“The day you stop worrying will be the first day of your new life; anxiety takes you in circles, trust in yourself and become free.” — Leon Brown
My earliest memories of my life seem to have one commonality — I’m either experiencing acute anxiety or catastrophizing.
Once, on a holiday, I was left with my eldest sister to look after me. My mother promised me she would only be gone for half an hour. I sat in the kitchen and watched the clock ticking relentlessly.
At 40 minutes in, I was grief-stricken — my mother had obviously been in a terrible accident and had died. I was now missing the most important person in my life.
Of course, she returned over two hours later thanks to the traffic and could not understand why I had once again riled myself up into such a state of anxiety.
Until recently, my life revolved around such chronic catastrophizing so often that I ended up avoiding people and situations.
I also procrastinated dealing with people I shouldn't avoid – my father-in-law, the gas man, the bank, and that one client with whom I just couldn’t get things right.
It seemed so simple to everyone else — so black and white — you just get on with life and try to make the best of it for yourself. However, in my mind, every situation was a potential minefield, causing me great upset and worry.
Before I knew it, the most memorable moments in my life were punctuated by all-consuming fear and anxiety over things that I now see were absolutely nothing to worry about.
When you catastrophize, you create a nightmare scenario in which absolutely everything could implode, explode and generally make your life as you know it intolerable and irreparable.
It’s a masochistic tendency that goes hand-in-hand with chronic anxiety, making you constantly fearful that something terrible is just around the corner or that something innocuous will morph into dire situation.
How Catastrophizing Hinders Your Health, Happiness, and Productivity.
When you catastrophize, you feel adrenaline, shock and despair, all part of anxiety.
As your brain conjures up the worst possible eventualities, you react physiologically and psychologically, as if the terrible thing you imagine were really happening.
Blood pressure increases, heart rate rises, blood drains from your face and other extremities, and you go into fight-or-flight mode.
If you are catastrophizing several times a day, this process not only drains your mind of any mental energy, but it’s also physically exhausting.
This negativity you constantly focus on and perpetuate is not just tiring — it's debilitating. When you're under pressure and need to perform and take in vital information, you can't pay attention to the tasks at hand if your thoughts are hurtling toward an imagined catastrophe.
Distraction and panic set in, and before you know it, you’ve missed important information. This can happen in your workplace, in the doctor's office, in a performance situation, or even while driving.
You may also avoid taking risks and putting yourself out there for opportunities in your personal or professional life, as your anxiety and worry are too overwhelming to allow you to take action.
Catastrophizing not only hinders your daily happiness, productivity, and achievement, but it can also have long-term effects on your mental health.
Your self-esteem can suffer when you routinely believe the world is always crumbling around you. You believe you lack the coping skills to manage the potential catastrophes you imagine and feel helpless and hopeless.
Your subconscious tends to absorb your insecurities and reveal them in a self-critical way. This could materialize into catastrophizing depression or an ongoing anxiety disorder.
If you don't take action to deal with your tendency to catastrophize, this bad habit will turn into an anxious addiction, holding you back from enjoying life and finding peace of mind.
Want to learn how to stop catastrophizing? Here are 7 actions to practice:
1. Stop Your Inner Dialogue
If your inner critic were personified, it would be your arch nemesis — a cruel, manipulative person who continuously poisons your mind with negative ideas and opinions.
If you listen to what this inner critic is telling you and allow yourself to accept it as the truth, you brainwash yourself into believing in phantoms and letting them destroy your happiness.
You may notice how often your negative inner voice goes off on a tangent before you even realize what’s happening. Before you know it, all of the physical symptoms and fears are sending alarm bells throughout your body.
Practice noticing how often your catastrophizing mind takes control and leads you down the slippery slope of false beliefs.
The minute you notice yourself in an anxiety spiral, stop yourself — even by saying “Stop,” out loud. Interrupt the process and wrestle control of your thoughts so your logical mind can take over.
Take away the power of this inner voice by identifying the thoughts as imposter messages that aren't grounded in reality.
Once you identify that your inner critic is at work again, take a moment to stop and breathe.
Congratulate yourself for having prevented the catastrophizing from accelerating and take deep breaths to calm down your mind and body.
Catastrophizing puts your body into a state of stress, so to think clearly and rationally again, you need to calm down and return to the present moment.
Breathing exercises will help you be present and mindful, as opposed to focusing on an dangerous future world where only bad things come true.
Close your eyes, remove any distractions, and begin breathing in and out as you count down from ten. Count on the out breath, noticing how your body and mind are settling down.
Repeat this ten-count breathing as many times as necessary to feel safe and calm again.
3. Be Your Own Best Friend
The way you speak to yourself through your inner chatterbox is worse than how you’d speak to your own worst enemy.
Remember, at the end of the day, you’re all you’ve got. You can't afford to fight yourself and create unnecessary stumbling blocks every step of the way.
You may be furthering your anxieties by shaming yourself for catastrophizing and worrying. You're layering problem on top of problem when you do this.
Read Related: How to Love Yourself: 20 Ways to Cultivate Self-Worth
What if you were actually supportive of yourself? What if you were your own cheerleader, your own best friend?
What would you say to a dear friend who has doubts about themselves or unsubstantiated worries about the future? I’m sure it would be the polar opposite of what your inner critic says to you.
Be kind to yourself and understand that catastrophizing often has its roots in some real fears from your past. These fears may be long gone, but the residual effect has left you on constant high alert.
Show compassion to yourself for the real discomfort and frustration of living with this challenge and be patient as you work to change and heal.
If you need some extra help, there are supplements you can take to help rebalance your brain’s chemistry and boost your dopamine levels. For example, vitamin D helps regulate neurotransmitters and could prevent you from naturally hurtling toward catastrophizing so quickly.
4. Perform A Reality Check
When you are catastrophizing about some potential outcome or situation that scares you, take a moment to check in with reality.
- What are the chances that your fears really will come to pass?
- How often have you catastrophized over nothing in the past?
- Are your thoughts and worries really grounded in truth?
Nine times out of ten, your past catastrophizing has been a complete waste of emotional energy and time. Even if something you feared did come to pass, it was likely less daunting or horrible than you feared.
Remind yourself of the real-life facts from your history. These facts are the evidence you need to prove your catastrophizing is unnecessary and inaccurate. Shining the light of reality on your fears can help you feel more in control and calm.
5. Avoid Other Catastrophizers
Shining a spotlight on your own issues also means shining it on those around you who see the worst in every situation.
I have a friend who is also a catastrophizer, and the basis of our relationship for the past ten years has been voicing our nightmarish scenarios back and forth to each other and obsessing about them.
Read Related: Mindfulness Practice: 8 Powerful Benefits
This kind of disaster co-dependency only adds fuel to the anxiety fire. Two catastrophizers aren't in a good enough place to act as rational sounding boards for each another.
As part of my own journey, I have needed to distance myself from this person as well as from other catastrophizers — and you do, too.
Instead, spend more time with positive, optimistic, and healthy-minded people who view the world as safe, positive, and full of opportunities.
6. Seek Out Positive Support
Seek out someone you trust and can rely on to share your fears and help you overcome them.
Perhaps voicing your fears to a nonjudgemental and trusted person will help you gain some perspective, and learning coping strategies will make you feel more in control of your life.
If catastrophizing is becoming a regular occurrence and you feel your anxiety is worsening, it may be a good idea to seek professional help in any case.
Psychologists, cognitive behavioral therapists, and other trained professionals can teach you cognitive strategies to control your inner critic and reveal underlying core beliefs that could be causing the anxiety.
7. Expect Good Things to Come to You
How about turning the tables on your catastrophizing and develop a new mental practice of expecting good things to happen to you?
Keep a gratitude journal to focus on all of the things that are going well in your life, and make write a vision for yourself that reinforces positive, happy outcomes.
Many believe that sending out positive vibrations into the world encourages positive things to come your way. Believe in yourself and work toward imagining your perfect life every day.
Catastrophizing is an insidious habit that can have serious consequences on your mind and body.
It can sabotage your confidence and prevent you from living the life you know you are capable of living .
Take control of it now by identifying your inner critic and learning how to silence it. Seek out help if you feel that your fearful thoughts are impairing your ability to function.
Even if you are anxious, work on replacing fear and anxiety with a dose of reality, chased with a generous helping of optimism and self-compassion.
The more you practice shutting down the catastrophizer in your mind, the less power it will have over you.
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