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What is catastrophic thinking?

Jamie, 19, is a college student who was diagnosed with anxiety at 13. She says that while she has been able to manage her anxiety through the years, the toughest time she has is with catastrophic thinking.

“I think of it like those spiral slides at the playground,” says Jamie. “Once you’re on, you’re on, and you’re not getting out of that tube until you hit the ground.”

If you recognize this visual, you can empathize with Jamie. If you’re still unsure what catastrophic thinking is, it’s the magnification of a single distressing, awful thought. It might start off as a small, fairly insignificant issue in the grand scheme of things, but your anxious or depressed brain quickly turns it into a mountain of fear.

“Just last semester, I had a really hard course load, and there was one class in particular I had a tough time with… so during exam week, it was like, ‘I’m going to fail. And then I’m going to get kicked out. My parents are going to be so mad at me. I’m going to have to go back home and no one’s going to hire me because I’m a failure. Oh, that’s why I’m not in a relationship, because I’m a failure. I might as well drop out now because I’d rather it was my choice than getting expelled.’ It just keeps going.”

It’s important to note that each thought feels real. It feels valid. But it’s even more important to remember that these are just thoughts, and thoughts can be controlled. Really.

If you can prepare your mind before the distressing thought appears, you’re already on your way to preventing catastrophic or anxiety spiral thinking. Here are some things you can try:

Remember that your thoughts are just thoughts. Think of an elephant. Now think of that elephant wearing pink shoes. Next, think of that elephant wearing a pretty gold bracelet. Finally, think of this very elephant standing on your driveway.

Is there actually an elephant with pink shoes and a gold bracelet standing in your driveway?

This is by no means an attempt to minimize your thoughts. It is, however, a gentle and humorous reminder that thoughts really are just thoughts. Remember where you are, in this moment, and that any number of things could alter outcomes in this life. So to get a handle on your catastrophic thinking, remember you have the power to recognize that you control your thoughts; your thoughts don’t need to control you.

Source the source. Typically, when we find ourselves lost in the wave of catastrophic thinking, we’re not worried about the specific event that started this – we’re worried about something else. It could be, like in Jamie’s case, the worry of shame, of feeling incapable of completing a four-year degree. You could be worried about losing someone you love. But where has this come from?

Work with your therapist to uncover the root of your worry. When you can unearth that, it will be easier to recognize when it tries to rear itself through your catastrophic thinking.

Fight back. Too often, especially when we’ve been battling anxiety or depression (or both) for a long time, we tend to feel as though our thoughts always win. But don’t forget to fight. The next time you feel your thoughts going astray, tell yourself, “No. This threat is not real, not right now. Stop.”

When you can fight against the thoughts and remind yourself that you’re here, in this moment, it becomes easier. Tell yourself you’ll deal with whatever happens when it happens. What’s happening right now is you’re challenging your negative thoughts – that’s the only fight you need to fight right now. Everything else can wait.

Here’s the thing: catastrophic thinking is ruminating about irrational outcomes. Worst-case scenarios. What it does is increase your anxiety, and prevent you from taking good, healthy action where you need to take it.

But catastrophic thinking absolutely needs to be disputed, so when you can identify it, deal with it, and identify best-case possibilities as opposed to worst-case scenarios, you’re learning to control your fears and think more rationally. You’ll be able to weigh out the facts and evidence and develop real, helpful contingency plans. You can discuss with yourself or your support team what your worries are without letting them overwhelm or control you.

All this said, we recognize the importance of managing catastrophic thinking. We’re not here to discount or dismiss your thoughts. It’s so important to recognize how meaningful these thoughts are to you in the moments you’re thinking them, but we do encourage you to be able to question and change these thoughts so you can live a healthier, more comfortable existence.


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