How to cancel catastrophising thoughts

Does your mind automatically jump to the worst-case scenario when things appear to be going wrong? Learn how to reconnect with reality by following these tips

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

It’s a scenario many of us have experienced. Your partner said they would be home around 7 o’clock, but it’s gone 7.30 and they’re nowhere to be seen. You begin to imagine all the horrible things that may have happened – maybe there’s been a traffic accident? You’re in full panic mode until they arrive home safe and sound, having missed the bus.

Catastrophic thinking is a problem for lots of people, and is particularly common among those who experience high levels of anxiety, which can lead them to imagine the worst has happened.

“Often, people tend to magnify the negatives and minimise the positives about a situation,” says Dr Ian Nnatu, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital, North London. “This could be based on their upbringing – for instance, if a person had a parent who was always very anxious, and had a negative outlook on the future, this could go on to affect their own outlook on life.”

Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, adds that, for some clients she has worked with, they feel that imagining the worst possible scenario or outcome prepares them for if, or when, that does happen. Mental health problems such as anxiety or depression can also alter perception of the possible predicted outcomes of a situation. While being prepared can be a good thing, the problem comes when these thoughts spiral, or regularly become overwhelming, and start to affect your daily life.

So, what can you do to help reduce this kind of negative thinking?

Recognise catastrophic thinking

“Being aware of your catastrophic thinking can help you to put steps in place to manage it going forward,” Dr Nnatu advises. “When you find yourself having a catastrophic thought, ask yourself three simple questions. ‘What is the worst that can happen? What is the best thing that could happen? What is the most likely thing to happen?’” By answering these questions you can help shift your thinking as you build up a more balanced view of the particular situation.

Write worries down

“Ruminating or overthinking is never helpful,” says Catherine Gallacher, a Glasgow-based counsellor. “It’s always better to write things down and see things more clearly or objectively.”

Having things in writing may enable you to begin to see patterns in your thinking or behaviour. For example, if you often worry about being fired when you’re called into a meeting – but you have never actually lost your job – you may begin to realise your worries are unfounded.

Make lifestyle changes

When you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed it can be a good idea to distract yourself for a few minutes. Exercise can be beneficial, as it reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins – chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.

Try calming techniques

Catastrophising happens when we live in the future, and we try to anticipate what might happen, psychotherapist Hilda Burke explains. “The antidote is to try to be more present, and to live in the moment. Meditation is the best technique I know for this,” she says. “Even if you struggle to meditate, try to catch yourself as you start to catastrophise, and bring your focus onto your breathing, taking some deep and slow breaths. This can help to slow the thoughts down.”

Speak to others, or seek professional help

It’s important to speak to other people if you often feel anxious or low, as they can reassure you, and put things into perspective. If you experience catastrophic thinking often, however, this may only provide temporary relief.

One of the problems with catastrophic thinking is that as soon as the worry is lifted – when your partner returns home unscathed, for example – we soon find something else to feel anxious about.

The only way to break this cycle is to tame anxiety and learn to manage it, which can be done through cognitive behavioural therapy. Dr Nnatu advises seeking professional help if you find catastrophic thinking is interfering with your wellbeing and peace of mind.

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