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People with anxiety often come to therapy complaining of a specific and extreme form of worrying. They ask questions like:
- “If my partner does not reply to me the second I text them, I always assume that the worst might have happened. How do I manage this habit?”
- “I cannot stand the thought of failing my exam, it makes me feel like I will always be a failure in life. Is this normal?”
- Whenever I meet someone new, even the slightest weird signal from them makes me think they hate me. How can I break this destructive thinking?”
If your mind also plays a reel of worst-case scenarios every time your anxiety rises, you might be engaging in catastrophizing. Catastrophic thinking involves a distortion of perception and cognition.
Typically, when a person catastrophizes, they blow things out of proportion and feel irrationally threatened by current, past, or imaginary situations. If you have a tendency for catastrophizing, here are three steps you can take to de-escalate your thought processes.
#1. Come back to the present
Catastrophizing can lead you down a dark thought spiral quickly. The best thing to do in such a scenario is to immediately bring yourself back to the present.
Research published in Acta Psychologica suggests that mindfulness, both in the moment and as a personality trait, shows great promise as a combatant to anxiety and catastrophizing. Training and practicing mindfulness can give your emotion regulation faculties a much-needed boost.
Another practice that can help someone who struggles with catastrophizing is breathwork. Research shows that deep breathing — or diaphragmatic breathing — helps relax anxiety by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. And, focusing on your breath helps ground you in the present and therefore acts as a buffer between you and your catastrophic thoughts.
#2. Establish a time to worry
Small worries accumulate and turn into catastrophic thinking. Research explains that setting aside and scheduling a block of time solely for worrying is a simple but effective technique for stress management.
If anxious or catastrophic thoughts occur to you when you’re engaged in something important, you can defer them to your ‘worry time’ and focus on the present moment. It can also ensure that you become aware of and address all your anxieties on a regular basis.
#3. Give CBT a shot
Since catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion or, simply put, a malfunctioning thought process, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is recommended most often when it comes to addressing catastrophic thinking.
Research has proven CBT to be effective against catastrophizing as it is based on the principle of awareness. Under CBT, the person struggling with catastrophizing is made aware of the dysfunction in emotion regulation and thought processes and is given exercises tailored to dismantle irrational thinking.
Often, the best antidote to catastrophic thinking is to talk to someone who can offer an objective perspective, like a therapist or counselor.
As is the case with other distorted thought processes, catastrophizing flourishes in isolation. The first thing anyone should do when they can’t control their own disturbing thoughts is to say them out loud, preferably to a loved one or a medical professional.