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How to stop catastrophising

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How to stop catastrophising

Do you make mountains out of molehills? Is it all or nothing? Do you imagine the worst possible outcome for future events?

This type of anxiety is common. It can be debilitating and all encompassing. It can impact your ability to enjoy life, make decisions, or take action.

Yet there are helpful resources, strategies and tools available. So, let’s explore catastrophising and some self-help tips to manage these worries.

What is catastrophising?

Catastrophising involves irrational thoughts where we believe something is far worse than it actually is. This includes present or future events. It coincides with rumination, where thoughts go round and round in your head.

Catrophising takes a small event – for example a disagreement with your partner – and creates negative thoughts such as ‘well, now my day is ruined’. While there is no proof this event will affect your day, your perception can turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Further to this, your catrophising may result in thoughts that your partner will remain angry, you may even think they’ll leave you in the future.

Self-help strategies

Pay attention

You may not realise you are catastrophising. You may automatically jump from problem to disaster. Try to pay attention to what you are thinking. Ask yourself is this perceived disaster a probable outcome?

Write your worries down

Keep a notebook or a ‘worry list’. Objectively write down every negative thought and your corresponding reaction to it. Over time you should see a pattern of when you are likely to catastrophise, making it easier to develop solutions.

Postpone your worry

Postpone your biggest worries to a scheduled 20 to 30 minutes every day. This worry session can help break the habit of dwelling, acting as a safety net to contain your worries.

During your worry session, go over your worry list. Work through your concerns and try to find solutions. It’s okay if you can’t find a solution and the thoughts still bother you, just try to contain these worries to the daily session.

Focus on solutions

Part of catastrophising is the belief you are unable to deal with problems and negative situations. With your ‘worry list’ brainstorm other possible outcomes. Make a list of all the solutions you can think of, some may be negative. Focus on what you can change, rather than what is beyond your control.

Now you’ve evaluated your options, make an action plan. This can be an uncomfortable task. But you’ll feel better when you have a plan and you start addressing your concerns.

Challenge anxious thoughts

Instead of viewing your thoughts as facts, treat them as theories you’re testing out. Examine and challenge your worries, you’ll develop a more balanced perspective. Try asking yourself:

  • What’s the evidence that the thought is true? That it’s not true?
  • Is there a more positive, realistic way of looking at the situation?
  • What’s the probability that what I’m scared of will actually happen? If the probability is low, what are some more likely outcomes?
  • Is the thought helpful? How will worrying about it help me and how will it hurt me?
  • What would I say to a friend who had this worry?

Problem Solving

Worrying rarely leads to a solution. Regardless of how long you dwell on worst-case scenarios, you’re no more prepared if they actually happen. Problem solving involves evaluating a worrying situation, identifying steps to deal with it, and then putting the plan into action.

If a worry pops into your head, start by asking yourself whether the problem is something you can actually solve. The following questions can help:

  • Is the problem something you're currently facing, rather than an imaginary what-if?
  • If the problem is an imaginary what-if, how likely is it to happen? Is your concern realistic?
  • Can you do something about the problem or prepare for it, or is it out of your control?

Accept uncertainty

The inability to tolerate uncertainty is a significant contributor to anxiety. Worrying is seen as a way to predict the future, prevent unpleasant surprises and control outcomes. The problem is, it doesn’t work.

Whilst you may feel safer worrying about all the things that could go wrong, it is an illusion and does not make life more predictable. Focusing on worst-case scenarios won’t stop bad things happening. It will only stop you enjoying good things in the present. So, if you want to stop worrying, start by tackling your need for certainty and immediate answers.

Practical self-care tips to use now

Be healthy

This can include breathing fresh air, eating healthy food, or gentle exercise. Other measures include getting plenty of sleep, taking a hot bath, stretching, a hobby, or a repetitive, soothing activity like knitting. These physical motions help reduce anxiety by bringing you into the present, helping you interact with your surroundings and making it harder to dwell on the past or the future.

Talk to a friend

Organising your thoughts into words and sentences can clarify a problem. Another person can provide support and offer a new point of view you may not have seen.

Mantras

Try repeating mantra’s like: ‘It’s not happening now, for the moment I am safe’ or ‘whatever happens I can cope, because I have coped before’.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a great way to ground yourself in the present moment, or gently guide a wandering mind back to the present. Online tools include Smiling Mind and Living Well.

Psychological Therapy

Counselling can help you utilise the techniques above. A counsellor my introduce acceptance based approaches which can teach you to recognise your feelings and thoughts without judgment or becoming deeply involved in them. Cognitive therapy is another option which focuses on challenging the validity of negative thoughts and to rephrase thoughts in more positive ways.

If you are worried about the affect catastrophising is having on your life, remember there are plenty of strategies, self-care tools and online resources available to you. Breaking catastrophic tendencies can be uncomfortable and requires commitment, but it's worth it in the long run. Remember, while life is uncertain, what is certain is that catastrophising leads to missed opportunities, anxiety and a less meaningful life.

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