Watching the news lately, it is no wonder my brain gets sucked into a vicious downward spiral of worst-case scenario thinking. Is the world coming to an end?! Well, even though it seems like that could be a very viable possibility right now, most likely not. But we’ve all been there! Something triggers us, and our mind becomes a runaway train barreling into the abyss of worst-case scenario thinking. This is called catastrophizing, and it is anytime you are wasting critical energy ruminating about the worst-case outcomes of a situation.
I have found myself falling into catastrophic thinking a lot lately. Making the decision to send my kids back to school and anticipating the start of the year was one trigger that recently threw me into this unhelpful cycle of dwelling on all of the potential disastrous future events that would surely come from this decision. After watching the news the other night before bed, I had trouble falling asleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about how the upcoming election, coronavirus, and unrest in the country will impact our business, health, and everything else. I also caught my husband catastrophizing when he told me about some financial decisions he needed to make related to the company. I know we aren’t the only ones experiencing an increase in anxiety and catastrophic thinking because I have seen evidence of this kind of thinking on social media as well as when talking to friends and family.
What Does Catastrophic Thinking Look Like?
There are three distinct styles of catastrophic thinking you can experience. Here’s are examples of what each style may look like Of course, this is a made-up example for demonstration purposes only… ;)
Ruminating- This is like being stuck in a never-ending loop. The same negative or worst-case thought continuously loops around in your brain, and you just can’t seem to shake it.
Scattered- This is a rapid-fire plethora of unrelated negative, worst-case events. It’s almost like one thought causes you to remember or think about all of the other things that go wrong in your life.
Downward Spiral- This style Is when your brain starts telling an increasingly negative and problematic story about what’s happening. Typically, the story we are telling ourselves strays further and further from reality.
All of these catastrophizing styles are equally as detrimental because they each take our focus off of what is essential and prevent us from taking purposeful action to help us mitigate or deal with the situation effectively. As you can see in the example above, all that has happened is this person’s children moved to a hybrid school schedule. Yes, that is a stressful situation and yes, there are a lot of challenges that need to be figured out. However, falling into catastrophic thinking only makes matters worse by wasting our energy and focusing on worst-case scenario thoughts instead of thinking about what she can actually do to deal with the challenge at hand.
Recognizing what style of catastrophizing we find ourselves falling into can also help us realize when we might be stuck. Although you may find yourself falling into all of these styles at one time or another, typically, your brain tends to gravitate to one of the styles more often. Rumination is, for sure, my style of choice! I tend to walk around this world with unhelpful amounts of anxiety because my brain can get stuck in a never-ending loop of negative thinking. What style resonates most with you?
Also, it is important to note that even though catastrophizing happens in our minds, there is often a physical reaction (increased heart rate, shallow breathing, jittery, sweatiness) that accompanies it because of the high levels of anxiety created. This is because when we are stuck in this type of thinking, our thoughts are typically so vivid that our body responds as if the worst-case situation that we are picturing is happening to us right then and there, even though in reality, we are just standing at the stove making dinner or laying in our bed trying to fall asleep. This high level of anxiety we experience then prevents or stops us from taking purposeful action to deal with the actual problem or scenario effectively.
What Triggers Catastrophic Thinking?
Here are some common triggers that increase our chance of falling victim to catastrophizing.
Ambiguity (lots of unknowns)
Something you highly value is at stake
If you already fear the situation
Being rundown or depleted
Being able to identify common triggers that could push us into catastrophizing is also helpful. This awareness allows us to anticipate situations or times when we might catastrophize and therefore try to prevent it or at least stop the thoughts quicker. For example, I know I need to keep a close check on my thoughts when I haven’t been getting a good night’s sleep since I will be more depleted. Another common trigger for me would be any stressful situation having to do with my kids since something I value more than anything is at stake (like the recent call I received from school that my daughter took a nasty fall on the playground and I needed to take her into the doctor).
I think you would be hard-pressed to find any spouse of an entrepreneur who wasn’t experiencing at least one, if not all, of the common triggers of catastrophizing right now! The entrepreneur lifestyle is already filled with ambiguity and high stakes. It requires an exorbitant amount of energy that can leave you feeling drained, but this pandemic and everything else currently going on in the world only magnifies all of those factors. It’s only natural to feel like things are spiraling out of control and to feel anxious right now, but the problem is that we can get stuck there, which wastes our critical energy and prevents us from taking purposeful action.
How to Stop Catastrophizing
Once you catch yourself catastrophizing, you can then try this simple skill developed by a leading expert in the field of positive psychology and resilience, Dr. Karen Reivich. It is a skill that has been taught to thousands of individuals who experience high pressure, high stakes, high-stress situations, such as business leaders and soldiers in the U.S. Army to help them remain calm, focused, and in control of their thoughts. It is a skill that has been helpful for me as well and I find myself using it often, especially lately!
Get out a piece of paper and draw three columns.
In the first column, collect and write down all of the worst-case and negative thoughts swirling around in your head.
In the second column, generate and write down the best-case scenario. You can be creative here. Don’t debate if it could really happen or choose not to write it down because it sounds too unrealistic. The point is not to be realistic here (that is for the next column). The point is to snap you out of the worst-case thinking and elicit some positive emotions. I know your brain is very creative when it comes to all the worst-case and negative things that could happen, so be equally creative at generating all of the best case things that could happen!
Now it is time to identify and write down the most likely situation in the last column. I want to be clear that the most likely scenario doesn’t need to be positive. In many cases, that would trigger catastrophic thinking; the most likely scenario is not all positive. So, this is not denying the truth, but it is helping you to distill down fact from fiction. Based on all of the knowledge you have, what is most likely to happen here?
Lastly, based on what you came up with for the most likely to happen column, develop a plan of action for how you are going to deal with the most likely scenario and write it out at the bottom of the page.
It’s helpful to write out this skill because there is power in seeing our thoughts and plan of action down on paper. Writing it out also helps to increase learning and remembering of the skill. However, if you are somewhere where you don’t have paper or can’t take the time to write it out, you can do it in the privacy of your mind. Just ask yourself, “what is the worst-case, best case, and the most likely thing that will happen here, and what is my plan for dealing with what most likely will happen?”
If you notice your spouse or other loved one falling into catastrophic thinking, you can help walk them through this skill as well. Using this skill will not only help to stop catastrophic thinking at the moment and lower anxiety enough to take purposeful action, but it also helps to build optimism for the future. And optimism is a critical component of resilience! I’ll share more about the benefits of learned optimism in an upcoming article, so stay tuned!
As always, thanks for reading! Share the common triggers that have been causing you to catastrophize lately in the comments below. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions!
Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor. New York, NY, USA: Three Rivers Press.