JThe grim fact of life is that at any moment something terrible can happen that ruins your day, your plans, even your life as you know it – disaster, if you will. (Not to be a disappointment or anything.) But while we’re all innately aware of this possibility, constantly focusing on it can always make you dread the next moment, caught in a mindset that will prevents you from experiencing the positive potential of life. Finding cognitive balance means both recognizing the very valid basis for this type of mindset, while learning to stop catastrophic thinking when it’s not doing anything for you (apart from sending you into a tizzy).

“I think of catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, as seeing what you would expect in a horror movie,” says a UK-based clinical psychologist. Julie Smith, DClinPsywith whom I spoke about his new partnership with calm. (She creates a Video series in 12 episodes for the meditation app to guide listeners through times of high stress.) “Your mind goes to that worst-case scenario and plays it over and over again, which can trigger huge levels of anxiety.”

“[When catastrophizing], your mind turns to that worst-case scenario and replays it over and over again, which can trigger huge levels of anxiety. —Julie Smith, DClinPsy, clinical psychologist

This usually occurs in situations where you perceive that your environment is or may soon become unsafe, whether it is really doable or not. As an example, take Dr. Smith’s recent trip to the English coast with his young children. “As we headed towards the coastal edge, I could see this cliff, and it was still 50 meters in front of us, but my mind immediately went to the worst case scenario, imagining my children running to the edge and falling “, she says.

In this case, the catastrophic thoughts reflected a very possible and real (even if not imminent) danger. And therefore, they served a purpose: “I decided to hold my children’s hands and I was able to plan and say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to walk in this direction’ and ‘We’re going to follow that path,” she says. “Catastrophic thinking has helped me keep everyone safe.”

This kind of situation proves the inherent value of our ability to catastrophize. “It’s not something anyone gets wrong, and it’s not a defect in the brain,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s really your brain doing its main job, which is to keep you safe and help you survive.”

The problem arises when catastrophizing begins to occur in response to a situation that is not dangerous, but which the mind insists on perceiving that way. “For example, if I’m a disaster at the start of each day, telling myself that I’m going to fail in everything I need to do, then that becomes a real obstacle,” says Dr. Smith. The same is true if you are constantly catastrophic in a relationship, jumping to the worst-case conclusion that a partner no longer wants to be with you or no longer loves you when there is in fact no indication of that. These types of catastrophic thoughts can become seriously detrimental, making you fear or dread a highly unlikely reality and triggering unnecessary anxiety, she says.

Why You Might Be Caught In The Useless Cycle Of Catastrophic Thinking

The brain tends to err on the side of caution, which facilitates catastrophic thoughts at the first perception of danger.

“In any given scenario, your brain is looking for red flags that you may not be well or that something bad is about to happen,” says Dr. Smith. And if he perceives any of these signs, even if they are not real emergency signals – it can quickly begin to bring up worst-case scenarios. After all, when an emergency actually happens, there’s no time to figure out all the possible things that could happen before you act. “In order to protect you, the brain will focus on the worst thing and make you hyper aware of that outcome in case you need to quickly change direction or reprioritize,” says Dr. Smith.

This cycle is all the more likely if you are already functioning at a baseline level of anxiety, which also stems from feeling insecure or insecure in your environment, says Dr. Smith: “You are more vulnerable to catastrophizing because your brain is already ready to start asking, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen here?’ »

Similarly, people with a anxious attachment style or deep-rooted fears of rejection may also be more likely to cause disaster in relationships from the start. “For example, if you had unpredictable caregivers growing up and the risk of abandonment was ingrained from the start, then you might be hyper-vigilant to signs that this might happen in future relationships and start thinking in ways catastrophic,” says Dr Smith.

In this case, any slight change in a relationship—perhaps one partner is slightly less affectionate or is a little harder to grasp—could set off alarm bells. “As soon as you start to feel unsafe in the relationship or things aren’t going your way, you can start catastrophizing,” says Dr. Smith. It might be like wondering if a partner still cares about you after taking an hour to respond to a text during the workday (rather than first assessing the possibility that they’re just busy).

These types of thoughts are certainly unproductive and uninspiring, raising anxiety levels and raising alarm bells where none are needed. Below, Dr. Smith shares tips for learning how to identify them, disempower them, and stop unnecessary catastrophic thinking in its tracks.

How to stop catastrophic thinking

1. Recognize (rather than try to ignore) catastrophic thoughts

As with any type of thoughts, to do something about catastrophic thoughts, you must first become aware of them. At first, it may be easier to begin to develop mindfulness in retrospect, so Dr. Smith suggests finding a time at the end of a week when you’re balanced to reflect and recall specific catastrophic thoughts, which brought them. , and how they made you feel.

It’s also important to do this without any self-judgment, so that you feel comfortable recognizing and labeling some of your thoughts as catastrophic. “People are definitely caught up in the idea that they should not have catastrophic thoughts and that if they do, they are just negative and need to be more positive,” says Dr. Smith. “But then you end up judging yourself for having that thought, which just puts you in a worse place than where you initially were; not only are you anxious, but you also feel very bad about yourself. Instead, treat the fact that you had this thought as a neutral, normal thing that happens.

2. Look for your own bias

Once you can recognize catastrophic thoughts, it is important to recognize the disproportionate space they take up in your mind, that is, your bias to believe they are true, despite other possibilities.

“The power of any thought lies in the extent to which you adhere to it as a true reflection of reality.” —Dr. Black-smith

“When you start to recognize, ‘Okay, that’s a possible prospect, but there are also other scenarios that could occur, and this one may not be the best reflection of reality. ‘, it takes away some of the overwhelming force of the initial thought,” says Dr. Smith. “And it’s important to remember that the power of any thought lies in the extent to which you buy into it as a true reflection of the reality.”

3. Practice a mental defusion exercise

Sometimes the difficulty in understanding how to stop catastrophic thinking lies in how you are connected to those thoughts. In this case, a demerger exercise can be very useful to create a certain distance between you and thoughts.

Dr. Smith says to start by changing the language. “Rather than just verbalizing a thought to yourself or others as it is, add the phrase ‘I feel like,’ in front of it, as in, ‘I have the idea that my children might fall over the edge ‘of this cliff’ or ‘I think I’m going to fall and die’,” she says. so you can see it for what it is: just a thought.”

Another strategy Dr. Smith uses with his patients is to have them write down catastrophic thoughts (either in a notebook or on post-it notes) and label them as such. “That way you can see them visually for what they are, and they’re not stuck in your head being the only perspective,” she says.

4. Consider other perspectives

Once you have come to the useful conclusion that a given catastrophic thought does not reflect the only possible thing that can happen, it helps to force yourself to visualize those other possibilities. “You already know the worst could happen, so what could be the best?” And what could happen from neutral? Dr. Smith suggests asking yourself. “When you start considering these perspectives, you will automatically be less focused on the worst-case scenario and have a more balanced view.”

Of course, figuring out those other prospects is often easier said than done, especially when you can only focus on the doomsday option. One way to make it a little easier to broaden your perspective is to challenge the original thought by “taking the thought to court,” says Dr. Smith. That means looking for evidence that the thought is “absolutely true and unavoidable” and then finding evidence that something different might be happening, she says. “It can help loosen your belief that the first thought is absolutely factual.”

The important thing to note with this type of thinking strategy is that you are not outright denying the potential of the initial catastrophic thinking; this worst-case scenario could indeed still happen. Instead, you’re just disempowering the idea that this is the only possible perspective, “which can really be enough, on its own, to move on,” she says.