Yesterday you made a mistake at work. It was a small mistake and you corrected it as soon as you noticed it, but all last night you worried that someone might find out and your boss would be unhappy. You hardly slept. What if you got fired? How would you pay the bills? As you walk into work you see your boss heading toward your desk. You are sure you are going to be fired. You start shaking and find it hard to catch your breath. You can barely walk, your legs feel like jelly. Finally you reach your desk…and realize that your boss walked right past your desk and is getting himself a cup of coffee.
Catastrophizing is making a mountain out of a molehill. It is when you worry about a situation and imagine only the worse possible outcome. When you catastrophize, not only do you imagine a negative outcome may happen, you assume that the negative outcome is going to be a catastrophe. In the previous example, making a mistake at work, even if someone found out, does not necessarily mean you will be fired; your supervisor might point out the mistake and give you ideas so it doesn’t happen again in the future; you might be complimented for catching the mistake and correcting it so quickly. By catastrophizing, however, you focus only on the negative outcome and jump to the conclusion that you will suffer a great loss.
The following steps can help reduce your catastrophizing:
You probably don’t even realize that you are catastrophizing. It happens within an instant - you see a problem and automatically jump from problem to disaster within a few seconds. The key is to start paying attention to what you are thinking. Keep a notebook and write down every time you have a negative thought and your reaction to it. Pay attention to your thoughts - this may be difficult at first but as you work at it you will find it easier.
Imagine all the Outcomes
Once you do that you can brainstorm other possible outcomes. You might write down outcomes that are unpleasant, such as your boss bringing the mistake to your attention, but don’t end with you losing your job and becoming homeless. Instead of focusing on just one outcome, write down as many as you can think of.
Unpleasant vs. Catastrophe
Failing a test is unpleasant, but, it doesn’t mean you are going to fail school or be a failure throughout your life. Once you list all the possible outcomes, decide whether each outcome is merely unpleasant or if it truly would be a catastrophe. Chances are, most of the outcomes you listed are unpleasant (although you may have listed some positive and neutral outcomes). Chances are, none of the outcomes you imagined will ever reach catastrophe stage.
Focus on Solutions
Part of the panic you feel when you catastrophize comes from your belief that you can’t effectively deal with problems and negative situations. Everyone has had their share of problems and you are no exception. Throughout your life you have dealt with problems - with good and bad results. No matter what you did, eventually the problem was resolved. Once you have listed all the possible outcomes, look at those you see as unpleasant or negative and list some steps you can take to resolve the issue. For example, if you are worried about failing a test, you could list:
- Ask teacher for help
- Study harder for next test to bring up grade
- Ask for extra credit to bring up grade
- Enlist a study buddy to work with before the next test
Creating steps to overcome the negative outcomes helps reinforce the idea that you can deal with problems. Knowing this reduces catastrophizing because you know whatever happens, you can deal with it.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.