Catastrophic thinking: How to manage negative thoughts

Dwelling on the terrible things that might happen if you do something wrong or don’t say the right thing is something we all experience, especially if the stakes are high. 

If I mess up this presentation or my boss gives me a poor performance review, then I’ll lose my job and it will be the end of my career.  

Sometimes it can be easy to lift ourselves away from spiraling thoughts, rationalise the situation and focus on the task at hand, but what can you do if your constant catastrophising is holding you back from success? 

We’ll explain what catastrophic thinking is, what can cause it, and how you can manage your negative thoughts to take back control.

 

What is catastrophic thinking?

Catastrophic thinking is when your mind zooms in on the worst-case scenario, even if you have no evidence. With your attention glued to the seemingly endless list of bad things that could happen, it leaves you unable to focus on anything else and causes you to spiral into negative thought patterns.

Catastrophic thinking is a type of cognitive distortion that happens when our mind convinces us of something that’s not true. It was first identified by Aaron Beck and is thought to lead to increased anxiety and depression, as we constantly fixate on the ‘what if?’ scenarios. Beck also describes what is referred to as a mental filter, which is the tendency to focus on a single detail out of context and use that as the basis of our judgment.

Whilst this way of thinking is something we all experience from time to time if it becomes persistent, it can impact your mental health.

 

Why am I always thinking the worst? 

A pattern of negative thoughts can have a detrimental impact not only on your mental health but on your career. Feeling overwhelmed by the bad things that could happen in your day-to-day life can hold you back from succeeding, or cause you to underperform because you were distracted. You might not put yourself forward for a promotion in the first place for fear of failing and somehow losing your job. 

So, what causes us to fixate on the worst possible outcomes?

One explanation is something that a lot of us are driven by every day: fear. Despite how well you succeed in life, an undercurrent of doubt, and fear of having the rug pulled from under your feet at any moment, causes you to fixate on any tiny thing that could trigger a wave of disastrous events. Not knowing the outcome can lead you to jump to conclusions. Experiencing uncertainty can lead your mind to wander and think of all the possibilities without having all the facts, and focus on the worst-case scenario.

 

How do you stop spiralling?

When you are catastrophising, you aren’t in the present moment, but rather your attention is gripped by a future event that you don’t have all the facts about, making it easy for your mind to fill in the blanks. Luckily, there are ways that we can learn to manage our negative thought patterns and subdue our catastrophising tendencies.

Catastrophic thinking can often feel like an avalanche of negativity that you can’t stop. Here are three simple steps you can take the next time you feel your thoughts snowballing out of control. 

1. Interrupt your thoughts

Being aware of your negative thought patterns is often the first step in managing them. Whilst it won’t stop them, interrupting yourself can help to slow down your racing mind and give you a better understanding of where they are coming from. Once you are aware of the problem that they are rooted in, you’ll be better prepared to deal with them. 

2. Change your perspective

Catastrophic thinking thrives on focusing on the details, so take a moment to be present in the situation and absorb everything going on. This may help you to realise that it’s not as bad as you initially thought. Seeing it from another angle can give you a fresh perspective and even spot opportunities you didn’t initially notice. 

3. Think logically

In many ways, this is the complete opposite of the negative thoughts you’re experiencing. It could involve reasoning with yourself to help ground yourself and stop spiralling. Once we are aware of why these negative thoughts are occurring, we can challenge them with reality and facts. 

Ready to combat negative thoughts?

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