Always worrying about the future? Does negativity cloud your daily life? Stop catastrophising and start living, says Sarah Ewing
“Always look on the bright side of life!” the Monty Python song goes. But if you’re a catastrophist, that’s wishful thinking! We’re all prone to sometimes believing that a situation is far worse than it actually is, but catastrophists take their pessimism to another level. They worry about all the things that could go wrong because it’s a foregone conclusion to them. However, if you’re clouded by this daily undercurrent of negativity and fear, you’ll struggle to be truly happy. It boils down to not having a realistic perspective and jumping to conclusions. So, who is more likely to suffer from it?
People who are catastrophisers don’t like not having total control over what’s happening to them. They mistakenly think that they can minimise risk by accounting for every eventuality because it’s how they feel safest. It’s like having insurance to them for when things go wrong. But life can’t be boiled down to playing the ‘what if’ game.
“Catastrophists wrongly think that every potentially threatening aspect of life can be controlled and that there is a logical solution to every life challenge,” says Dr Rafael Euba, consultant psychiatrist at the London Psychiatry Centre (psychiatrycentre.co.uk). “In fact, we can control only a relatively small proportion of our lives. The rest is in the hands of fate. It’s a shame that catastrophists spend their lives feeling unhappy because they worry about things that could happen that would make them unhappy. They’re denying themselves happiness.”
Catastrophising generally takes two forms – one, making a mountain out a molehill about a current situation and making it out to be far worse than it actually is, and two, worrying about all the future potential mountains that could happen. Because we believe something will go wrong, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and can lead to feelings of failure, disappointment and underachievement. The problem is that worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect you from pain. So why do some of us succumb to this punishing way of thinking?
“This skewed perception of a catastrophist’s ‘reality’ is because they’ve developed faulty thinking over time,” says Anjula Mutanda, TV psychologist and mental health expert (anjula.com). “A catastrophiser is likely to suffer from a range of anxieties and for someone in the grips of a catastrophising thought, it doesn’t feel unrealistic, in fact quite the opposite, it seems very rational and logical. Catastrophising can be very debilitating long-term, affecting your sense of perspective and ability to cope, and ultimately manifest as actual physical health problems.”
If you dig deep, there might have actually been something in your past to have caused your brain to ‘switch on’ to this negative thinking. Some studies have suggested that too much news can distort our perceptions of the world and increase our fear and worry factor, which may in turn cause those more vulnerable to anxiety to engage in negative thinking.
“Some sufferers may have experienced trauma and found catastrophising as a coping mechanism,” says Anjula. “That way, they always feel prepared for the next terrible event and protected from the ‘what ifs’. But by being hyper-vigilant, it’s impossible for them to be positive and feel at ease. Others may have learnt this behaviour early-on in their life so they’ve known no other way.”
But sometimes, a catastrophist isn’t actually aware of what they’re doing.
“Negative automatic thoughts can enter their minds without them realising,” says psychotherapist Lynette Evans (thelisteninghelper.co.uk). “When they’re already feeling low, they’re more prone to unhelpful, illogical thinking and assumptions, and a lack of focus. Feelings are then formed by these skewed thoughts and their stress levels, anxiety and depression increases, forming a vicious self-sabotaging cycle.”
Despite catastrophising usually being a long-term debilitating habit, this faulty thinking can be challenged. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to deal with this yourself, talk to your GP and look into getting counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a talking therapy that helps you put into place better thinking patterns and actions. But first, try our expert-based plan to lead a happier, more positive life.
What you can do to combat catastrophising
Self-awareness is key.
“Turn detective and keep a journal for a week,” advises Anjula. “Write down when your negative thoughts pop up and notice how they made you feel and how you reacted to them. Once you do this, then you can see a pattern emerging, so you can start to challenge the negative thinking. So, for instance, when you start to imagine a terrible outcome, simply ask yourself, ‘What’s the concrete evidence that things will turn out dreadfully?’ This will help you take control and the more you practice this, the less you will engage in catastrophic thinking.”
Improve your self-esteem.
“Feelings of helplessness can stem from past events that we’re unaware are still affecting us,” says Dr Rafael. “Low self-esteem can make us feel stupid, unattractive or lonely so improving your self-awareness and esteem will help you feel more in control and less like a victim. Positive affirmations can feel cheesy, but they work for a lot of people. Try, ‘I’m in control of how I feel and today I feel happy’.”
Measure your thoughts and put them in perspective.
“Ask yourself if you’re magnifying the possibility of threat or diminishing the positive?” says Lynette. “How would someone else see it? What is the bigger picture? Consider the alternatives. What other reasons might there be for the situation, feeling or emotion? And most importantly, balance the evidence. Do you have enough genuine evidence to come to your conclusion? By more logically examining the evidence against your catastrophising thought, you can strike a healthy balance and create an alternative realistic outcome.”
Focus on your resources.
“Catastrophising compromises the feelings of control and power that create instability. Reconnect with what makes you feel grounded and secure,” adds Lynette. “Mindfulness is good for dealing with anxiety, stress and depression, because it encourages awareness of the present moment and stops your judgement through your skewed thinking or feeling.”
“If you must worry, set aside a time and place to worry and discipline yourself to think about other things the rest of the time,” says Dr Rafael. “If you’re prone to catastrophising thoughts at night, keep a notebook on your bedside table. Simply writing down your worries can help move them from your head so you can revisit them another time with a different mind-set. When writing down your fears, finish your list with one thing that you’re grateful for or proud of to help steer your mind back to the positive.”
If you find yourself worrying anyways, feel compassion for yourself.
“Pretend it’s your best friend or a family member that’s feeling this way, what would you say to them?” asks Rafael. “We’re often far more negative on ourselves than we would be to loved ones, so imagining it’s someone else can help you to take a step back and look at the situation in a better light.”
Keep things in proportion.
“While it’s natural to feel bad about bad things happening, you need to be realistic,” adds Dr Rafael. “It’s inevitable that things will go wrong from time to time. Accepting the inevitability of loss and failure will help you live a less anxious life. When the mind is taking over, it can feel overwhelming. Focusing on your body over the brain is a great way to refocus yourself on achieving something physical, which will quell your anxiety. A 20-minute run or workout will get your heart rate up, allowing you to focus on deep breathing and how your body feels, as opposed to your brain.”
Be a support for a catastrophist.
“It can be extremely hard for someone struggling with it and you can’t force them to get help, but encourage them and reassure them that it’s OK,” says Lynette. “Share your experiences about what you did to turn a skewed thought into a positive. Make plans to get out for a change of scenery. Sometimes solutions as a concerned friend or family member are unnecessary. Just ask the person what support they need and be prepared to listen.”
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