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Things are going to be bad: what is catastrophic thinking and how to get it under control
Things are going to be bad: what is catastrophic thinking and how to get it under control

Sometimes we tend to invent problems where they don't exist, but this can be fixed.

Things are going to be bad: what is catastrophic thinking and how to get it under control
Things are going to be bad: what is catastrophic thinking and how to get it under control

Has the employer turned down your resume? That's it, no one will ever take me to work, and I will have to beg or sit on my parent's neck all my life so as not to starve to death.

Does the child have a fever? This is probably pneumonia, coronavirus, meningitis, or something else deadly.

Did your loved one smile while looking at the smartphone screen? He definitely has someone, he will soon leave me, and I will remain alone for the rest of my days.

If you tend to build similar logical chains, most likely you are prone to catastrophization, or, in other words, to catastrophic thinking.

What is catastrophic thinking

This is a cognitive bias, due to which we greatly exaggerate any negative events in our life. Or even not the events themselves, but some weak hints and probabilities.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapist David Burns, author of Mood Therapy. A clinically proven way to beat depression without pills,”calls catastrophization“the binocular effect”because the person who is prone to it inflates things to gigantic proportions.

Danielle Friedman, a mental health consultant, sees catastrophization as a form of distorted thinking that is not grounded in objective reality. The consultant believes that there are two types of catastrophic thinking.

1. Present-oriented

Then it seems to us that right now something terrible is happening in our life, although we have no clear evidence of this.

A loved one didn't answer the call? He probably had an accident and died. Was your teenage son rude? He definitely takes drugs, aggression is one of the signs.

2. Future-oriented

In this case, we are confident that the disaster will happen later.

The plane shook in the air? This engine has failed, we are about to fall and crash. Did the manager make a comment? He will fire me soon, you can collect things.

Remember the tale about smart Elsa? She went down to the basement, saw a hoe on the wall and very vividly imagined how this hoe would fall and kill her unborn child, who would go down to the basement in the same way. This is a classic example of future-oriented catastrophization.

Where does catastrophization come from?

It is in our biology

Up to 70% of our thoughts are negative. We keep bad memories longer than good ones; we react more sharply to negative stimuli than to positive ones.

If a person came to a restaurant, they fed him deliciously and were polite to him - this is something self-evident, and he will immediately forget about it. But if the waiter is rude, the steak turned out to be tough, and the card was not accepted for payment, the visitor will boil, boil for several hours, write a devastating review to the institution and complain to friends on Facebook.

Fixation on the negative and the persistent desire to look for the bad even where it does not exist is, quite possibly, an evolutionary mechanism. We needed him to exercise maximum caution and vigilance, to anticipate danger and to avoid it with all our might. For the cruel and unpredictable world in which we lived before, a thing is necessary. Whether such thinking is needed now is a moot point.

It grows out of general anxiety

Research shows that there is a correlation between this way of thinking and high levels of anxiety. And not only in adults, but also in children and adolescents.

People prone to catastrophic thinking, in general, are more susceptible to neuroses and painfully react to many events.

She brings us pleasure

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair says the mechanism is very simple. First, we imagine a terrible scenario, and then, when the fears are not confirmed, we experience tremendous relief. The brain "chases" these pleasant sensations and pushes us towards catastrophization.

What's Wrong with Catastrophic Thinking

Some people think that this is a completely normal reaction and in general it is better to play it safe once again than to miss out on something important and get into trouble. There is logic in such reasoning. Indeed, a tendency toward catastrophization can make a person more vigilant, teach him, say, how to use applications that show the location of family members using GPS, or carefully read papers before transferring money somewhere.

But don't forget that catastrophic thinking is not entirely harmless.

It spoils the mood

Calling morgues and hospitals, swallowing a sedative and imagining in paints how a loved one was smeared on the asphalt just because he did not answer a couple of calls and messages is a very dubious pleasure.

No one likes to experience this and spend hours of their life in horror, anxiety and gloomy forebodings.

It leads to depression

Psychotherapist David Burns catastrophized one of ten cognitive biases that are responsible for depressed mood and depressive disorders.

From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, it is negatively colored thoughts and the cognitive distortions they generate that lead to depression.

It makes the pain worse

Studies show that those prone to catastrophizing feel more pain. If a person winds himself up and imagines terrible diseases, it is quite natural that he feels pain, discomfort and other alleged symptoms more acutely.

How to stop catastrophizing

Unfortunately, almost no one succeeds in just giving up, thinking good things and not cheating, as the omniscient experts in social networks like to advise. But if a catastrophic mindset is getting in the way of your life, there are several ways you can take control of it.

Change the wording

In his book Mood Therapy, David Burns proposes to write down the automatic thoughts that arise in your head in response to a particular stimulus, examine them under a magnifying glass, look for cognitive distortions in them, and eventually come up with more logical and calm formulations.

Here is an example of this analysis.

Thought: "I'm not good for anything and will never find a good job."

Where did it come from: "Several good companies turned down my responses."

What cognitive biases are there: catastrophization, self-depreciation.

Answer: “So far I have not been able to find a job, and it’s sad. But this does not mean that I am a loser and will not be taken anywhere. Perhaps I need to be patient, because even very cool candidates are periodically rejected. Or maybe you should look at your skills and think about what I am missing for a good position and salary."

If you methodically work with every thought that poisons your existence, over time you will learn to think more realistically and constructively.

Use the "best friend test"

Ask yourself a question: what would you say to a loved one if he was in your place and was tormented by anxiety. Chances are, you would appeal to logic and fact and try to gently convince him that there is no cause for concern. Now try saying the same thing to yourself.

Set aside anxiety time

Give yourself, say, 30 minutes a day when you can officially worry and simmer in your fears. During this time, try to consider what scares you from all sides. Analyze how rational this fear is, perhaps write down your thoughts. When time is up, switch to work or other activities.

Take a break

As soon as an alarming thought has crept into your brain and pushes you, for example, to search the Internet for symptoms of fatal diseases, tell yourself that you need to wait a little. Just a couple of minutes. During this time, do a breathing exercise, walk, drink tea.

Try to increase the time between impulse and action each time. If you manage to hold out for 20-30 minutes, the panic will subside, and the thought that caused it will no longer seem so scary.

See a psychotherapist

If you can't cope on your own and it's hard for you, be sure to look for a competent specialist who can help you. Look especially closely at those who take cognitive-behavioral approaches in their work. It is considered effective against catastrophizing and other similar cognitive biases.