The mind is a powerful force of nature that can work for or against you.
Is yours working against you by exploding reasonable or stressful situations into fragments of anxiety and fear?
This is a process called “catastrophizing” whereby your mind automatically assumes the worst possible outcome is the most likely – and it is more common than you might realize.
Life is full of challenges and difficulties. We are often hit by circumstances that we may not have expected, that are completely beyond our control.
What we can control is how we mentally respond to those stresses and work to control our emotions related to them.
Now, for some people, that can feel like an insurmountable task. And you won’t always be able to control every single little emotion or thought that goes through your head. It’s just not possible or reasonable.
But, even controlling just a handful of those thoughts can significantly improve one’s quality of life and peace.
We can start by examining the thought processes surrounding different stresses.
Example 1: A breakup with a partner that you’re in love with.
A breakup with a romantic partner is always a tumultuous, difficult time.
It creates a significant difference in our life, with how we expected things to be, how we planned for things to develop. Plans that we felt were set in stone – that we may have been relying on – may go up in smoke.
Fear can come right along with the sadness and anger of a breakup.
“Will I ever find love again? Will I ever find love like this again?
What did I do wrong? What did they do wrong?
How will I ever replace this awesome person? Do I want to feel love again?
Will I just get my heart broken again? Can I truly rely on anyone? Can I trust anyone to really love me, to really give my love to?
Is it better for me to just be alone? Why does this always happen?”
And because of that discomfort and fear, we run the risk of our mind running away with the possibilities and questions, undermining our ability to find peace and happiness in the moment.
Example 2: Facing the loss of employment.
A job or career is a necessity in the lives of most people. After all, bills need to get paid, food needs to be put on the table, and sleeping outdoors year-round isn’t the most comfortable of living situations.
It’s common and expected to experience anger, fear, and anxiety with the prospect of losing one’s job.
“What does this mean for my future? How much do I have in savings?
Do I qualify for unemployment help? Will I find a new job soon?
What if I don’t? What will I do then?
Can I afford food? My rent? My bills?
What about my other responsibilities? My family? Did I let them down? Am I letting myself down?”
Again, that discomfort and fear will be compounded as the stress piles on, as we try to get our feet back under us so we can stand back up after being knocked down.
Catastrophizing As Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
The two examples above show how negative thoughts can spiral in reaction to unwelcome events, but the same process can also occur when we envision a catastrophic future event.
Instead of reacting to a breakup or the loss of a job, you simply imagine these things as inevitable destinations to the path you are on.
Perhaps you have an argument with your partner. No matter how good your relationship is or how rare a disagreement may be, you convince yourself that this is the beginning of the end of your love.
Maybe your boss chooses someone else over you for an important new project. You instantly begin to think that they don’t like you or consider you unfit for the job. Your sacking is imminent and no amount of hard work will make any difference now.
In these instances, your catastrophizing can actually become self-fulfilling prophecies as you begin to distance yourself emotionally from your partner or lose motivation for your job.
The change in your mentality may eventually lead to the exact things you fear most.
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How Do We Control And Combat Catastrophizing?
When our thoughts run away from us and descend into the pessimistic abyss, how can we ever hope to regain our emotional stability?
The tactics below can help you to reverse your downward trajectory and regain some semblance of control over your mind.
1. Allocating a set amount of time to consideration of the problem.
A big part of the runaway thought processes that go with catastrophizing comes from dwelling.
When faced with a stressful or difficult situation, it’s easy to get sucked into endless loops of negative thoughts.
The thoughts can plague us during the day or keep us awake at night, staring at the ceiling of our bedroom while we continue to worry about the possibilities.
One technique that you can use to control these thoughts is by setting an allocated time to think about the problem and the solutions.
That is a distinct, concise statement. We must focus on the problem and potential solutions – not everything that can possibly go wrong as a result of the problem.
We can actively force our mind onto different thoughts when we realize that we are unnecessarily dwelling.
It’s a simple solution, but it’s not easy. It takes practice and gets easier the more you do it.
2. Distraction from the problem can make it easier to deal with.
Distraction is a simple and effective way to keep the mind from spinning out of control when confronted with an emotional situation or problem.
That does not mean that we ignore or avoid the problem altogether. Too much in either direction is not good or healthy, because it leaves you unprepared to deal with the fallout of a potential problem.
There are plenty of ways that we can distract ourselves when we realize that our mind is trying to run out of control.
A person can watch a funny show or comedy, read something complex that will require focused thinking, play a game, or even just sit down with pencil and paper and draw something.
Find an activity that will let you focus your mind on the activity itself.
And like the first tip, it requires some dedication and effort to get correct. It’s simple and effective, but it’s not easy at first.
The more you do it, the easier it is to snap out of the runaway thoughts and onto what’s in front of you. In doing so, you interrupt those unwanted thought processes.
3. Strive to focus on rational, reasonable thoughts relating to the problem.
Facts can serve as a much needed anchor back to the rigidness of reality. A perspective that looks at multiple sides of the same problem can find balance in the middle.
A person may be heartbroken by a breakup, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the story or their happiness. There are 7 billion people in the world. There is most certainly another person out there to love, and be loved by.
And no, it won’t be the same as what we might have once had. It never is, because we’re dealing with different people in different situations.
That heartbreak may lead to loving and being loved by someone who simply fits better or is willing to invest more work into the relationship.
Similarly, losing a job can be a blessing in disguise. We might find that our job was making us completely miserable, but we lacked the willpower or inspiration to really try to change our situation.
The loss of a job can serve as a catalyst for significant changes in our life, to strive for better for ourselves in a new job, or maybe go back to college so we can pursue a different career.
We tend to focus on the fear of the unknown, because the unknown brings with it uncertainty. But, the truth is, that same unknown can herald positive changes in our lives.
That change depends on how we choose to look at the circumstances and situations that we face.
Learning To Control One’s Thoughts And Emotions
Let’s face it, controlling one’s thoughts and emotions is not easy.
The previous examples are processes that I, and many other people, use to control runaway emotions caused by Major Depression and Bipolar Disorder, both of which bring with them many, incorrect, irrational, and erratic thoughts.
It requires regular practice, effort, and a commitment to making it work.
And if you find you need more focused guidance, it can be an excellent idea to talk to a mental health counselor about stress management and emotional control.
Asking for help from a mental health professional is a solid choice if you feel your catastrophizing is related to a mental health issue, or is a regular problem in your life.