What To Do If You Think You’re A Catastrophiser
What To Do If You Think You’re A Catastrophiser

What To Do If You Think You’re A Catastrophiser

While worry is a normal and healthy response to many situations, catastrophising is a mental distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion. If your worrying seems irrational or you find yourself unduly concerned about things, you might want some help. We spoke to two experts to find out what to do if you recognise the signs in yourself – or somebody else...
By Georgia Day

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What sort of things is it normal to worry about?

Given the stresses and strains of modern life, it’s impossible not to feel worried to some degree, most days. “Modern life can be complicated and it’s normal to find ourselves worrying about external stresses such as our job, finances, relationships and the future,” says psychotherapist Tasha Bailey. But it’s important to determine whether your worries are a natural result of something that is a genuine issue. “Worry is our response to threat or danger, so it is normal to worry about things if there is something to actually worry about, such as the threat of redundancy (if redundancies in your workplace have been announced); your health (if something is affecting it); or the cost-of-living crisis (if you are struggling financially) and so on,” explains psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist Daniel Fryer.

Why is it important to worry to some degree?

Although it can feel pervasive, worry – much like stress and anxiety – is a normal behavioural response that’s needed to modulate our overall approach to things. “Worry is a healthy response to the uncertainties and dangers in life, and indicates that something needs your attention at that time,” says Tasha. “Some level of worry or stress can be helpful, as it motivates us to solve problems, make decisions and complete tasks that will take us closer to fulfilling our goals or our needs,” says Daniel. “For example, we’re more likely to complete a mundane task like paying household bills, if we hold some stress about what would happen if we didn’t.”

How can you tell if you’re a catastrophiser? 

Catastrophising – or imagining the worst-case scenario all the time in response to every thought and worry that comes into our head – is an unhealthy manifestation of worry. “Catastrophising is a cognitive distortion (unhealthy thinking pattern) where our thoughts can focus on believing that the worst possible outcome will happen,” explains Tasha. More than that, catastrophisers are prone to ignoring evidence that could show a more positive prediction, instead preferring to fixate on their version of the ‘truth’, which then perpetuates the cycle of worry. “From a neuroscience perspective, the more anxious we feel, the more negative our thought patterns are going to be. Our nervous system is often in fight-or-flight mode when we’re worried, which can lead to racing, negative thought patterns such as catastrophising,” she adds. 

Although it can be a standalone bad habit that’s been allowed to build, as with many mental health issues, it’s often the sign of a wider problem. “Catastrophising can be a bad habit that you’ve built, but it can also be a symptom of anxiety or depression,” says Daniel. “Constant catastrophising, however, could also be a sign of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). People with GAD can’t shake the feeling that something bad will happen and that they will not be prepared for it.”

How can you tell when your worrying is getting out of hand?

“Catastrophic thinking can be emotionally exhausting. Not only does it fuel more anxiety and stress to give all our focus to things going wrong, but it also leads us to lose our autonomy,” says Tasha. “Since we think we already know what’s going to happen, it can make us feel overwhelmed with helplessness. This a big sign that our worrying has crossed over into unhealthy territory.” 

You might also find that your constant worrying has started to invade other areas in your life, perhaps even situations that never presented themselves as problematic before. If that is the case, it can be a big red flag that something isn’t quite right. “If it causes you stress or sleepless nights more often than not, if it gets in the way of your ability to focus on other things, such as your personal or professional life, if your catastrophising is preventing you from enjoying your life, or if other people have pointed out that you worry far too much, these are all signs that your worry has become excessive,” says Daniel.

What should be the first port of call if you think you have a problem?

“The first thing we need to do is become aware of our catastrophising. We can do this by making a habit of writing down each time we have a catastrophic thought. The more awareness we have about it, the easier it will be to catch ourselves before it spirals too far,” says Tasha. And although it might feel difficult to do, trying to step outside your own head for a moment and demanding proof of yourself is an important step. “Ask yourself, what evidence do you have that the worst-case scenario won’t happen? And what support do you need to give me reassurance about that?”

For some, starting to self-probe and question in this way might be enough to reset existing thought pathways. If not, then it’s important to seek external help. “If any of this sounds like you, your first port of call should be your GP,” says Daniel. “Either that or seek out the services of a therapist. While NHS waiting lists for therapy are at all-time high, private therapists are not always as expensive as you think; some of them offer sliding-scale options, plus there are charities such as Anxiety UK and Mind that can help. Also, apps such as Mind Ease and Headspace are good for helping deal with negative thinking.”

What are some ways to treat the problem?

“Once we have awareness about its existence, we can start to challenge it. An exercise I often ask my clients to do is to draw their ‘worst-case scenario’, giving them permission to imagine it in detail. This allows them to start to challenge and pick it apart. How likely is it that this would really happen to you? And if it did happen, would it truly be the end of the world? What ways would you be able to bounce back from it?” explains Tasha. 

Other structured therapy options can also help. “Hypnotherapy is great for breaking bad habits and for building a more positive mindset. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are all gold-standard treatments for anxiety (including catastrophising and GAD). Mindfulness and other forms of meditation also help, and hypnotherapy paired with CBT, REBT and/or ACT can be a great combination,” adds Daniel

What other lifestyle changes can you make to enhance treatment?

“Integrating more relaxation techniques like yoga, exercise or mindfulness can be really helpful for reducing catastrophic thoughts,” says Daniel. “The more that you slow down and regulate your nervous system, the more you activate your brain’s ability to reflect and find perspective. Paying attention to your lifestyle factors is always a great way of improving your mental health. These include healthy nutrition, good-quality sleep and regular exercise, which can help get us out of the fight-or-flight mode where catastrophic thoughts thrive.”

Although it can feel like an impossible task, it is important to try and be gentle with yourself, and realise that trying to predict or control the future doesn’t make it any easier or help solve the problem. “Give yourself permission to let go of control over the future, and to instead find autonomy with what you can do in the present,” encourages Tasha.

Is it worth talking to family and friends if you feel like this is you?

“Talking to someone you trust can be a great way to gain some perspective. Family and friends can challenge these thoughts with you and offer alternative outcomes to a problem,” says Tasha. “It’s worth saying, sometimes we learn catastrophic thinking from other people, such as highly anxious caregivers. So, be mindful about who you take your worries to, as you don’t want to leave with more worries that you started with.” 

Is catastrophising something someone will always be prone to?

“Each of us have toxic thought patterns or cognitive distortions which our brains will feel comfortable relying on during times of stress,” explains Tasha. “So, it is possible that catastrophising may come up time and time again. However, through self-awareness and intentional healing, we can learn to pause early enough before it gets out of hand when we do.” It’s a sentiment that Daniel agrees with: “It doesn’t mean you can’t learn strategies to manage it more effectively going forwards.”

Daniel’s book, How to Cope with Almost Anything with Hypnotherapy: Simple Ideas to Enhance Your Wellbeing and Resilience, is published by Bloomsbury on Thursday 23rd May.

Visit DanielFryer.com

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