Worrying is a normal part of everyday life, and although it might not seem it, it has its purposes.
It can help us anticipate problems, prepare us for different situations, focuses our minds, and prevents us from making the same mistakes over and over.
But when we worry excessively, uncontrollably and our worries become irrational, it could be a sign of a general anxiety disorder. People who suffer from high levels of anxiety often worry about minor mistakes and issues, things that others wouldn’t necessarily see. These minor issues can be paralysing, and can make day-to-day life difficult for the individual in question.
Catastrophizing is the term given when worrying is uncontrollable. In essence, a person witnesses a negative outcome, and then magnifies it onto other aspects of their lives, and the negative effects spiral from there. This is not the same as anxiety, as it has no real benefit in life.
A classic example is, an employee who worries for hours after work about a minor mistake he made at work that day. He will worry that he will lose his job, and will end up homeless. It is likely that these negative thoughts will be amplified and others will feel the effects.
Although, from an outside perspective we can see there is little chance of this happening, this individual will believe every single one of these thoughts will happen.
Believing each thought will affect every area of this person’s life, especially sleep. Not sleeping because you are afraid that you will get punished the next day, will keep you up all night and will lead to sleep deprivation. Which leads to a completely new set of issues!
Although this spiralling issue may seem uncontrollable, there are actually many different techniques to allow people to accept themselves, and their worries for what they are. One of the best ways to help control these thoughts is to show the individual that they are strong enough to deal with their imagined outcomes.
There are a few techniques a person can use to stop catastrophizing and lower their anxiety levels, here are some ideas to try out.
Answer the question, “What if?”
This approach is getting you to face your biggest fears. As you are making catastrophic predictions about the future, you need to ask yourself to imagine the worst case scenario.
Vividly imagine your worst case scenario, and apply these questions to your scenario.
What would happen if this situation did happen to you?
What if you were to get fired?
What would your days look like?
Would other days be like this?
What are my other options?
Is there anything positive in my scenario?
What would happen if you were to get fired because of the minor mistake you made at work?
How would you feel?
You would probably feel sad for a while about losing your job, for example.
Then you would look for some job adds, ask your friends if they know about an opening, or just try and apply for some roles.
In any case, there is almost no chance you would end up homeless if you lost your job, for example. There are different jobs you could do, even if you didn’t find the one you wanted immediately. And you would have your family and friends to help you out, if you were unemployed for a long time.
Take home message
The point is, the worst case scenario is almost always very unlikely. You can think about the possibility of it happening and express it with percentages. You can then think about ways to cope with it, and see that you are not without resources.
Complete this exercise to help yourself to de-catastrophize
Imagine the bad outcome
In most cases when catastrophizing, you usually stop thinking about the worst case scenario when your anxiety gets too high. You end up running away from these thoughts, and the next time you return to them your anxiety levels are even higher, because you’re already worrying.
Use your imagination and try to go over the whole scenario in your head. Use the example below to start you off, and then apply your own scenario.
“Imagine speaking with a person of the opposite gender and losing your voice.”
What happens immediately after you lose your voice?
What happens after few minutes?
How do you feel?
What do you do next?
What is going on after 5 minutes?
Did you survive this event?
This exercise allows you to see that the worst case scenario, would most likely be temporary. It would have no lasting effect on you, and the other person would be accepting.
Now you can see a clear picture and you have gained some much needed strength and courage. You have proven to yourself, that actually the scenario might not play out as you think it would. In time, and as your confidence in dealing with your catastrophizing grows, you can begin to share a joke about things. Humor is a great way to extinguish potential issues too. Given time you could be honest and start a conversation about your catastrophizing too.
This process is not easy, and it will take a lot of time, effort and patience, but the results could mean a steady decrease in catastrophic thoughts. Eventually, these thoughts will appear less frequent, because you’ll know the way to handle them.
Use your mental time machine
You can help yourself to see the bigger picture by using your imagination. Visualize yourself finding a time machine, and traveling a month, a year or even longer, to after the event you were dreading has been.
Think about how you would feel about it then. Perhaps you still have worries, but maybe you feel a lot better now that it’s over. You could end up with the conclusion, “I won’t be thinking about it a year after the event, because I will have other things in life to worry about”.
Sometimes looking forwards when catastrophizing, can actually help you to see that you will actually live through the event. It can give individuals some perspective and in some way rationalizes what might be going on in the brain.
The helicopter view
When something is distressing us we can become very emotionally involved in it. It can be hard to look at things objectively. And it’s even harder to stand back and put things into perspective. People like to use the saying, “We can’t see the wood for the trees”, to explain this technique to stop catastrophizing.
The helicopter view technique suggests that when an individual is catastrophizing, they should get into their ‘helicopter’, which takes them high into the sky away from the issue. From up above they can look down, and see the situation from a better and more logical viewpoint.
For example, there is a conflict with someone who is important. The solution cannot be seen on the ground. You start to misinterpret the other person’s intentions, and over exaggerate the consequences of their actions.
At this point you need to get into your helicopter and fly high above, to focus the conversation.
As you get higher and higher, you think about your perspective. You can also imagine what the other person can see and how they think. You consider the situation from the other person’s perspective. And slowly, with practice, you formalize a logical outlook for the events taking place.
The main advantage of this technique for stopping catastrophizing is, it considers how an outsider, a person who is not emotionally involved, might see, think and feel. By giving the individual in question this outlook, they can actually reassess their own thoughts, with the hope of them coming to a more positive outcome. They can take their time and think about a rational solution. Helicopter views, can also help you to see potential bad outcomes, so you can stop things going too far.
Panicking does not define you
A big issue with catastrophizing individuals is, that they allow their panics and worries to define them. They allow their panic to make them panic, which makes them panic more, and so on.
Unfortunately, it’s quite common to hear people punishing themselves, because they can’t accept that panicking is part of who they are.
Individuals will comment, “What is wrong with me?”, “Why do I think like this?” and “Why am I so scared?”.
For those looking for help with stopping catastrophizing, it is crucial to accept your feelings. But these feelings do not define you as a whole person. You might struggle with some things, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work through it and come out the other end.
Most importantly, panicking doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with the way you think. We all have some disturbing thoughts. The key is to accept them and let them pass.
But it is useful for you to monitor how often these particularly negative thoughts occur.
Panic can be brought on by a lack of sleep. A lack of sleep correlates with higher levels of anxiety for a lot of people. Try and get a good night’s sleep, keeping away from blue screens before bed and drinking caffeine. This could in turn help with your spiralling thoughts, as your well-being is boosted as you sleep.
Other things to be considerate of when looking to reduce your panic states are, avoid stress inducing situations, eating too much junk food, massive life changes.
Imagine the good outcome
Try imagining getting through the dreaded situation and eventually thriving when you get to the other end. Don’t sugarcoat it, accept that is will not be easy, but it could be a huge success.
Too often we get trapped in imagining the worst case scenarios, we forget that there is a strong possibility that things will turn out ok.
A healthy amount of worry is a normal part of life and has its purposes.
Excessive worry lowers our ability to adapt and function at work and in other circumstances.
Imagining the worst case scenario and accepting it can lower our fears.
Going through issues visually can help us figure out what our resources are, if the worst happened.
Estimating the likelihood of a bad outcome can make us realize we are most probably not in danger.
Imagining ourselves in the future looking back could also proved to be helpful.
Ellis, A. (2019). How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable: About Anything-Yes, Anything!. Hachette UK.
Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications.