- Kristen Stuppy, MD
Catastrophizing: When the sky is falling…
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
It’s not uncommon for us to automatically think the worst when something unexpected or negative happens. If you think life is one catastrophe after another — the end of the world — you can learn to change your perspective and move on. When you think every little setback is a huge hurdle, it’s called catastrophizing. It’s possible to stop catastrophizing by taking a step back and finding solutions. It isn’t easy, but you can learn to change your perspective.
Making mountains out of molehills
This is a common phrase, which just highlights how often people feel like whatever problem they’re having is the biggest problem of all. The good news is we can learn to handle this strong anxiety.
For example, if you don’t feel ready for a test, it’s easy to think you’ll bomb it. If you do bad on the test, surely your grade will drop. Bad grades won’t get you into the college you want, and then you won’t get the job you want.
That line of thinking is what many people experience. Everything is a catastrophe.
What can you do to avoid catastrophizing?
Give it time.
First and foremost, give yourself some time. Whether you can only afford a few big breaths or you can sleep on it, a little time can help.
If you impulsively react to anything negative, you’re more likely to overreact, cause more problems, or just not be able to find a solution.
Give yourself time to calm down because trying to think straight when you’re upset is not helpful.
In the example above, if you keep thinking along those lines, you won’t be able to focus on your test, which will negatively impact the outcome. Clear the negative thoughts to be able to focus.
I know it’s not easy. Trust me. My mind wanders horribly when I try to be mindful. But I’m still practicing.
Studies show mindfulness helps with anxiety, focus, and physical health. It’s worth learning.
When you’re good at being in the moment, you can use mindfulness to help calm yourself before reacting.
November 6, 2018 come to our meeting about using mindfulness to get stuff done. See our Events page for details.
Look for facts.
I always say that feelings are louder than facts. When we’re sad, angry, scared, or feeling any strong emotion, it’s hard to think about the facts.
You need to find the facts.
Write down what’s going on. Sometimes it takes seeing things written out to see the facts.
In the example above, do you really think you’ll fail to get a job because of one test you weren’t well prepared to take?
While it’s always a good idea to study, get a good night’s sleep, and be prepared for tests, the truth is many successful people have occasionally been unprepared.
They do their best and try harder next time. They use that as a learning opportunity and study differently the next time. Maybe they ask the teacher more questions or find a tutor. Or they simply make the time to study. They might try a new technique, such as taking notes while reading or standing to read.
Whatever it takes, they learn from their mistake. This is resilience.
Change your mindset.
There’s a whole post on changing mindset. Please read it.
Let’s face it: we all have good days and bad days. Things happen.
We don’t need to blame anyone or anything. Sometimes it’s no one’s fault. It just is.
A common example of a no fault solution is in sports. Someone has to win a game, which means someone loses. Losing isn’t the end of the world. Again, use it as a learning experience. Maybe there’s nothing you could have done to change the outcome, but you can change your mindset about the outcome. If you did your best and the other team was better, then that’s the way it is.
Think of other positives. Was it good just to spend time with friends? You got exercise and a break from studying. What good came from it?
Identify when you’re catastrophizing.
If you find yourself frequently frustrated at what is going on around you, look for triggers.
What sets you off?
If you can find certain things that always get your fire burning, watch out for those situations and tread extra cautiously.
Maybe things that work you up are frequently related to school. Smart students tend to worry excessively if they do poorly academically, even if it’s not worth many points.
Don’t fall for the slippery slope of one small setback leading to failure. Identify it as your hot topic area and work on changing your approach.
What is protective?
Do you realize that if you are tired or hungry you’re less able to handle stress? Does that mean that the opposite is true? Be sure to get enough sleep if you think it does. (Hint: This is true for most of us. Check out The Big 3.)
If you find that talking to someone helps, find people who can calm you down before you act inappropriately.
Exercise often helps people clear their mind. If you have the time to take a walk or hit the gym, do it. If you don’t have a lot of time, get your wiggles out in another way, such as a brisk walk around the room.
Change the pattern.
Learn to change the pattern of catastrophic thinking.
In catastrophic thinking, a negative experience is followed by unpleasant feelings. These unpleasant feelings make it seem like nothing good can follow in the situation.
If you learn to spot the pattern you can interrupt the thought process and choose to se the situation differently.
Play the rewind game.
A fun game to play that can help you learn how to change your mindset and behavior to get a better outcome is Rewind. In the game you roll play with a friend or just in your mind.
This game works a lot like those books that you can choose the ending. If you want to go in the house, you choose page 4, if you want to walk down the street, you go to page 12. The choice you make alters the outcome.
In this same manner, you can choose different things that could have been said or done, and role play what the response from the other people involved would have been.
Rewind a situation and play it out differently.
When you find yourself complaining about the outcome of an event, think it through again, starting with what you could do to try to get to a better ending.
The trick is you have to be the first to change what you say or do. In the real world we can’t just expect someone else to change a behavior. We can only change what we do. Others usually follow suit, depending upon what the situation is.
You forgot to turn in a homework assignment. This leads you to worry that your grade in the class will fall. A lower grade makes you worry that you’ll be kicked off the school team due to GPA requirements. Of course then you’ll lose your scholarship and won’t get to go to college. If you don’t go to college then you’ll end up in a minimum wage job or homeless.
The first step is to recognize this as catastrophizing. You won’t end up homeless due to one missed assignment.
Next you will need to not make missing homework assignments a habit, so use the rewind game to figure out what you can do to change the outcome in the first place.
What could you do differently?
Do you need to write your assignments in a planner and check them off when you do them? How do you remember to bring the homework and everything you need to complete it home? Did you choose the right location to do the homework without distractions? How do you remember to put the homework back in your backpack when completed? What distracts you in class from turning it in? Can you come up with a routine that would help?
Sometimes the rewind game will allow you to play out a scenario in which your words or actions can change, which changes someone else’s response. This is good when you have a disagreement with a friend. You can’t expect them to change their response unless you first change yours. What can you do or say differently next time?
Playing rewind trains your brain to think about what you do and how others react. Each situation is different, but the game can help you play it out to get a better outcome and then use the techniques in real life.