When You Think Everything’s Going to Go Wrong That Possibly Could

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“Ugh,” I say. “I’m never going to get everything ready in time.” I’m standing in a house that’s perhaps half-finished its renovations. I’m about three-quarters packed. There’s about a week and a half left before everything needs to be done. And I’m starting to panic.

As I stand there, beginning to freak out, I imagine the house not only taking longer to prep than I maybe optimistically hoped in the beginning, but instead never getting ready for it.

In my perversely negative fantasy, since I can’t sell it and can’t afford to pay for two places to live, I foreclose on the house. It sinks into disrepair. Becomes a condemned, abandoned building.

My chest pounds. Everything is ruined! I’m doomed. What the heck am I going to do?

What Is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is an extremely common irrational thought process, one in which we think something is going to be much more worse than it actually is.

Pretty much everyone catastrophizes on occasion. This is believed to be due to the way that our brain’s fear centers work. Fear evolved as an adaptive response, one intended to keep us safe from mortal threats, including natural predators and environmental dangers.  Since it’s more safe to overreact and think something’s going to kill you when it isn’t than to feel safe when you’re actually in danger, our brains tend to err in that direction.

It doesn’t matter that most modern threats aren’t life or death. Our brains have changed a lot more slowly than our technology and still feel that way.

Catastrophizing is referred to in a variety of other ways. Sometimes it’s also called “horriblizing” or “horrible-izing” And a very common idiom refers to it as “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

How to Stop Catastrophizing

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to catastrophize. And it can be difficult to stop yourself from ever going there in the first place.

However, it is possible to gently guide yourself away from those kinds of negative thought patterns — which frankly aren’t helpful at all, even if you are in a bit of a pickle and aren’t overreacting that much (although you probably are).

Like all cognitive distortions, some degree of catastrophizing can be relatively normal and part of the personality of a healthy high-functioning individual. Can it be annoying or frustrating (for the person and those around them)? Yeah. But that doesn’t make it pathological.

However, when it does become sufficiently disruptive to seek out treatment, catastrophizing can be addressed by working with a therapist skilled in guiding a client through cognitive reframing techniques (e.g., CBT, REBT, DBT, etc.).

Here are some things that can help reduce catastrophizing without professional intervention for people whose problems aren’t severe enough to warrant clinical attention:

  • Look to the past for evidence of times when you encountered a similar situation and dealt with it just fine.
  • Consider scheduling a worry time. Set aside a 15-30 minute block of time every day for a week where you write down everything that worries you or bothers you about the situation that you can think of. You don’t need to solve those problems during this period, but if solutions pop into your head, you can write them down during the worry time if you want. Between worry times, if you start to worry, gently remind yourself that you will do that during the next worry period. It might seem weird and hard at first, but if you keep doing it, you eventually will get better at redirecting your thoughts. (You won’t do this perfectly when you start; no one does!)
  • Ask yourself, “Will this matter in five years? Five months? A week?” This always helps me. I’ll think back on times that were stressful and use that to help me compare how much it matters now — or more accurately, how much it doesn’t.
  • Talk things through with a friend who has a generally calm temperament and a little distance from the issue.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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