During one of my therapy sessions, my therapist handed me a piece of paper.
"Let me know which of these unhelpful thinking styles you identify with", she asked.
After studying it for a few minutes, I looked up and, with a sheepish laugh, I replied "All of them".
This sheet of unhelpful thinking styles helped me to make sense of my experiences over the years and feel the comfort that I wasn't the only one to think this way. One of the stand-outs for me was catastrophic thinking or Catastrophising.
What is catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is where we assume or imagine the worst outcomes from seemingly minor events. It can be a chain reaction of negative thoughts that escalate into ever-worse scenarios, and we start to believe that something is much worse than it is.
We feel helpless in the face of this catastrophe and powerless to do anything to prevent it. These future events feel painfully real and inevitable, leading to high anxiety levels.
For example, I might reflect on something I said at work. This reflection might grow into a thought that I demonstrated that I don't know what I am doing and that people see this and that I will soon lose my job.
What was my experience of catastrophic thinking?
Catastrophising was a major part of my life for years and is still present today. For example, I would
- wake in the middle of the night in a panic,
- be unable to do things, such as making a phone call, because I would play out the conversation in my head and visualise it being a disaster,
- pick apart a conversation or event and extrapolate this into dire consequences,
- believe I wasn't good enough and would soon be "found out"—classic imposter syndrome.
The night panics were the worst and a regular occurrence. Sometimes I wouldn't know the cause, but it would always lead me to believe that something terrible was about to happen; losing my job, being incapable of finding another one, being homeless. The list went on.
When held up to the light, they would appear ridiculous. But, left unconstrained in the middle of the night would feel all too real, unavoidable and terrifying.
This type of thinking was all too common for me, created a lot of anxiety and was exhausting.
How do I manage my catastrophic thinking?
Understanding that there was such a thing as catastrophising and that it is common was the first step in dealing with my thoughts. Things become easier to deal with when they have a name.
I still have my negative thoughts and experience catastrophic thinking, but I use a combination of techniques to help to keep them in check, for example I
📔 Write my thoughts in a journal;
🧘🏻♂️ Practice mindfulness;
🤔 Recognise that I'm catastrophising.
Writing my thoughts in a journal
I have been writing every morning in a journal since July 2021. While I haven't been doing it for very long, I discovered that it is an important tool in managing my catastrophic thinking or dealing with my inner critic.
I tend to write a few pages of a stream-of-consciousness over my morning coffee. Sometimes this can be mundane or look like a to-do list, but sometimes all my worries and fears come pouring out onto the page.
Writing things down helps to expose these negative thoughts, or "Catastrophe Gremlins", to the light and notice whether they pass scrutiny. I can ask myself questions, consider the evidence (or lack of) to support the worries and write down what actions I can take to help. Situations can feel a lot less dire once I see them for what they are.
My therapist first introduced me to mindfulness during our sessions. We would usually start with a mindfulness exercise where I was encouraged to notice my thoughts and then imagine putting them on leaves floating by on a stream and letting them pass. The idea isn't to stop thinking, but simply see your thoughts, acknowledge them and not get drawn into them.
Mindfulness feels difficult when you're not used to sitting still and doing nothing, and you have constantly whirling thoughts. I find that guided meditation works best for me in helping me stay present, preventing my mind from wandering and allowing me to relax.
I have used both Headspace and Calm to guide me, and I would recommend either for beginners. Both have programmes that build up your practice slowly, making it easier to become accustomed to mediation.
When I start the day with a short mindfulness exercise, this grounds and calms me for the day ahead.
Acknowledging that I'm catastrophising
Finally, sometimes there's not much I can do, and I simply acknowledge that I am being carried away by my thoughts. I find it difficult to use the above techniques to help me in those middle-of-the-night panics and, rather than wrestling with the thoughts and struggling to get back to sleep, I get up and make a cup of tea.
I worried that this might be the wrong thing to do and affect my sleep overall, but I was reassured during a presentation by Dr Sophie Bostock (AKA The Sleep Scientist) that this is often the best course of action. We can build a negative association with our beds if we fight and struggle to get back to sleep.
Getting up and doing something else makes a difference and allows my thoughts to settle, usually ending with me dozing back off on the sofa!
Catastrophising is common and can generate stress and anxiety if left unchecked. Why not try journaling or mindfulness to help with your anxious thoughts?