A recent catch up with a friend got us onto the topics of anxiety, negative thinking and the catastrophizing that our brains all too often put into overdrive. The three are quite clearly intertwined, and when we’re rushing through lists of worst-case scenarios in our head, it can be very difficult to rationalise and bring ourselves out of a negative spiral.
I’d like to share some tips to help break the loop of negative thinking, giving you some ideas on how to replace the negative with either rational or positive thoughts. Starting to replace the negative will mean, more often, you’ll be able to:
Focus on the here and now
Embrace new situations with confidence, not panic
Reduce feelings of anxiety or stress
What is catastrophizing?
If you catastrophize, you tend to “view or present a situation as considerably worse than it is” (Oxford Dictionary). Described in greater depth by Grohol, catastrophizing is “an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is.” It can generally can take two different forms:
Imagining a catastrophe stemming from a current situation, and;
imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation.
Rachel Nall (2018) writes how catastrophizing can be either a result or a cause of anxiety. If we approach catastrophizing from the perspective of anxiety, it can unearth some quite eye-opening information for us to consider.
How common is it?
If this sounds like something you’re familiar with, then you’re absolutely not alone. The Office for National Statistics reports that some 36% of the population had experienced medium or high levels of anxiety in the week that they were surveyed. That’s more than one third of us feeling significantly anxious on any given week. If we added in those who felt low levels of anxiety too, then we’re looking at nearly two thirds of the population.
Similarly, the more people I speak to and coach, the more I’m aware that so many of us fall into a habit of catastrophizing, and feeling anxious because of it. The more people I work with, the more I’m also aware that this is a habit that we’re all capable of managing if we can become more aware of when it’s happening and know what to do to stop it.
So, what can we do about it?
Firstly, it is actually quite natural for us to think in this way. We’re programmed to ‘protect’ ourselves from any potentially dangerous situations. These don’t have to be just physically dangerous situations but can include ones in which we might be judged or might fail.
Prof. Steve Peters, author of one of my favourite books, The Chimp Paradox, explains very simply why this is the case. The ‘Chimp’ (e.g. the animal/primal) part of our brains processes information using only feelings and emotions. “Emotional thinking means that the Chimp [aspect of our brain] makes guesses and fills in detail by assumptions that are typically based on hunches, paranoid feelings or defensive thoughts”. The catastrophic thinking that your Chimp brain is programmed to do, can lead to you feeling that there is no way out or no recovery from what you are or might possibly be going through. With this in mind, we can work on one of the first tips for coping with catastrophizing...
Acknowledge that it is natural and normal to think this way
Often, when we’re thinking in a negative or catastrophic way, it can feel like we’re the odd one out and that everyone around us is far more positive or embracing of life and it’s challenges. Remember, they’re not, and you’re not alone. As we’ve seen above, at least two thirds of the population have reported that they feel anxious, but if you were to speak to friends and loved ones about whether they tend to think of the worst-case scenario, more often than not their answer will be yes. Confiding and sharing your thoughts with people you trust can help you
Rationalise what you’re saying to yourself
If what you’re thinking is the worst case scenario then, by default, there will also be a rational, and a positive flip side to it. I often ask clients to move through their thoughts from negative to rational to positive, in order to see things from a different point of view. You can do the same thing using three columns, demonstrated below with a couple of examples:
Do something completely different
One of the best ways to get yourself out of a negative or catastrophic spiral is to not allow yourself to concentrate on it. Distract yourself. The brain can only manage so many thoughts, and if you’ve busied it with something like physical exercise, learning a new recipe, reading a book or chatting to a friend then it doesn’t have the space to keep thinking negatively. Even something as simple as moving rooms, or standing up if you’re sitting down can completely change your train of thought. It can also help shake off negative or catastrophic thoughts for long enough to allow you to check in with yourself and readdress what you’re thinking.
Find some simple affirmations and repeat them to yourself daily and when you notice your mind slipping into negativity
Affirmations are simple, positive phrases that we can tell ourselves. They can be used as a way
of counteracting negative thinking. Falk et al suggest that when work on practicing positive affirmations, we’re better able to view “otherwise-threatening information as more self-relevant and valuable” (2015: 1979). Significantly “Self-affirmations have been shown to decrease health-deteriorating stress (Sherman et al., 2009; Critcher & Dunning, 2015)”
Affirmations should feel specific and relevant to you, but some examples of simple affirmations you could use or adapt are:
I believe in myself and my ability to handle things
I am confident and capable
I am enough
There are lots of ways to deal with catastrophizing or negative thinking, and these are four suggestions of many. I’d love to hear from you if you have any other methods you like to use to break yourself out of a spiral and help yourself feel better in the long run.
Falk, E et al. 2007. Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Cited from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814782/ on 26th August 2019
Grohol, John M. 2018. What is catastrophizing? Cited from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-catastrophizing/ on 26th August 2019.
Nall, Rachel. 2018. How to stop catastrophizing. Cited from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320844.php on 26th August 2019.
Office for National Statistics. 2017. Measuring National Well-Being: Anxiety. Cited from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/datasets/measuringnationalwellbeinganxiety on 26th August 2019
Peters, S. 2013. The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to help you achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness. Penguin Publishing Group.