Mind over catastrophe: How to stop always thinking the worst

Always expecting the worst? Catastrophising can be detrimental to your mental and physical health.  Here are some simple strategies to put your mind at ease.

Your friend hasn’t texted you back and you assume the friendship is over.

Your boss calls you in for a chat and you think it’s because you’re going to get fired.

For some, catastrophising can be a protective mechanism from potential harm – real or otherwise.

Here we explore exactly what’s going on when your mind is constantly assuming the worst is going to happen.

What is catastrophising?

According to Dr Natasha Davison, registered psychologist and performance breakthrough coach, catastrophising is not only about expecting the bad in a situation.

“[Catastrophising is] thinking the worst without considering other more likely, realistic, or rational possible reasons,” Dr Davison says.

“Catastrophising does not allow for a balanced perspective of a situation. It focuses on the negatives only and blows the possible consequences of a situation way out of proportion.”

Why do we catastrophise?

The reasons why people catastrophise can vary.

“For many people, this type of thinking feels very automatic.

“It can occur as a result of learnt behaviour meaning that growing up they heard their parents or close friends verbalising their own catastrophic thinking,” says Donna Cameron, psychologist and founder of The Couch Psychology.

Donna says it can also be a protective mechanism people use to prepare for the worst, thinking they “will be able to cope better with the more likely outcome’’.

In certain cases, it can also be a symptom of anxiety.

“One of the biggest impacts we see in people who catastrophise is an increase in stress and anxiety, and a decrease in quality of life.

“Constantly expecting the worst in situations will continuously set off the ‘fight and flight’ response in our body.

“When this response is frequently activated, this causes problems not only for our mental health, but also on our physical wellbeing,” Dr Davison says.

How to manage catastrophic thoughts

There are a number of different ways to handle catastrophic thinking, both in the moment and in the long term.

Take a deep breath

“Undertaking diaphragmatic breathing will help your mind and body go into a physiologically relaxed state (the parasympathetic nervous system will be switched on rather than the stress response system, the sympathetic nervous system).

“This will help to circulate blood flow where it’s needed, for calm and logical thinking,” Dr Davison says.

Adopt ‘worry time’

Try and set boundaries around worrying, Donna says.

Decide on how many minutes a day this thinking can occur and also how often.

“Once the time frame is up, it is then important to acknowledge that you do not know the outcome of the stressor yet and there is a possibility that these catastrophic thoughts may not occur,” she says.

If another thought pops up outside this time frame, take note of it and commit to worrying about it when “worry time’’ next comes around.

Label your thoughts

Take notice of when you’re having a catastrophic thought and say to yourself “I’m having a catastrophic thought’’.

“The earlier you can catch it – the less impact it will have on you, on others, and on how you feel.

“Labelling it can help to make it feel more distanced so we don’t get caught up in it as much,” Dr Davison says.

Challenge the thought

Ask yourself “do I have any evidence that this is going to happen?’’ or “what’s the likelihood of this actually happening?’’

“Recall past situations that are similar and that turned out better than expected, and then remind yourself of these times.

“Let the brain know the reality of what has actually happened in the past,” Dr Davison says.

More ways to reduce stress:

Written by Tania Gomez.