In a previous post I mentioned that in my journey of self-discovery and self-improvement I came across the book Thoughts and Feelings by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning. I learned a lot from this book, especially in the area of automatic thoughts and negative thinking patterns. One of the negative thinking patterns that truly resonated with me was what the authors called “Catastrophizing,” which basically means turning any seemingly negative situation, no matter how small, into a major catastrophe in our minds. For instance, not getting the job after an interview may mean that we will never find a job. When failing to make a sale, the salesman may conclude that he’s a failure.
People who catastrophize tend to use phrases that start with “What if…” and what follows these words is usually something negative and of an apocalyptic magnitude. Here are some examples of everyday scenarios and some of the thoughts that may surface for a person who tends to catastrophize:
[While going for a night out] What if my house gets burglarized while I’m out?
[While driving on the freeway] What if I one of my tires blow up while I’m driving?
[When about to give a presentation] What if the entire audience hates me?
[When going into a tall building] What if there’s an earthquake while I’m in the building?
[When experiencing a headache] What if I have a brain tumor?
[Regarding our kids] What if my son starts using drugs?
[When watching a movie at the theater] What if there is a fire?
[When taking a flight] What if the plane malfunctions and crashes?
[When hearing of a couple who got divorced] What if it happens to me?
And the list goes on and on.
Now I’m sure many of us have experienced some form of automatic negative thoughts along these lines at some point or another, especially when something negative happened recently that may be related to the situation in which we are. For instance, if we’re watching a movie at the theater and we suddenly recall that we heard in the news about a recent fire at a movie theater and recall hearing that there were many victims, the thought that it could happen to us may suddenly take a hold of us and cause a wave of panic to sweep over us.
This is normal and can usually go away with a bit of rationalizing; a person who does not tend to catastrophize will usually ask him or herself, “What are the odds that it could happen to me?” and this is usually enough to stop the negative thinking pattern and be able to enjoy the movie.
However, for a person who tends catastrophize it’s not as simple. One catastrophic thought leads to another, the images in their minds become more and more vivid, and pretty soon they find themselves almost feeling as if the situation is already happening to them. At this point it becomes practically impossible for them to enjoy the movie, and they may end up choosing to leave the theater because the uncomfortable feelings are just too strong to ignore. As you can imagine, the level of stress and mental anguish that a person experiences as a result of these negative thinking patterns are very high.
So how can we deal with this?
Catastrophizing is a mental habit, and as such, the more we do it the stronger the habit becomes. So the first thing we need to do is become aware of when we’re doing it. This awareness will also be a tool in helping us stop the negative thinking pattern.
We also need to develop a plan action in advance. If we know that we tend to catastrophize, we need to select a few techniques that we can use once we become aware of the negative thinking pattern. Once technique I found extremely useful was asking myself the same question I was already asking (“What if …”) but in a positive way instead. For instance, if my catastrophizing thought was, “What if my marriage fails?” I would switch it to, “What if my wife and I find a way to reconcile? What if everything turns out ok? What if everything is better tomorrow?” or something along those lines. I would make it a point to replace every catastrophizing thought with 3-5 better feeling thoughts, and this usually did the trick. Not only would I save myself unnecessary mental and physical stress, but I would also free my mind to consider better possibilities and see opportunities to improve my situation.
I used multiple positive “what if” questions in order to re-train or re-condition my mind to take this route instead of the one it was used to taking. Remember, catastrophizing is a mental habit and like any other habit, the best way to get rid of it (in fact, some argue it’s the only way to get rid of it) is to replace it with another habit that serves us better. And just like anything else, the more we do it the stronger the new habit will become and the weaker the old habit will be.
The key here is to use better feeling thoughts that are believable to us, as opposed to positive but unrealistic thoughts that we don’t believe. If I said to myself “Everything will be wonderful tomorrow!” not only would I be deluding myself but my mind would not accept it, and I would experience a different kind of stress caused by the conflict between my current reality and what I’m trying to make myself believe.
The magic of “What if” is that we open ourselves up to the possibility of something positive happening; we’re not forcing it and we’re not pretending it, we’re simply acknowledging the possibility of it. Shifting our attention from the catastrophic thought to the possibility of something positive happening has the ability to help us feel more peaceful and at ease almost instantly.
Another good technique to use in conjunction with the “What if” technique is the rubber band method I shared with you in a previous post. Wearing a rubber band around our wrist and snapping it lightly when we catch ourselves in the middle of a negative thought pattern can help snap us out of it, and then we can switch to using the “what if” technique described above to ease ourselves into better feeling thoughts.
Negative thinking patterns can be replaced with positive ones, but it takes patience, dedication and persistence. If you find that you experience this negative pattern of catastrophizing, give this a try and let me know how it works for you. Or if you have any other techniques that have worked for you, please feel free to share them in the comments box below. I’d love to hear from you!
To your success!