Thinking Traps Part IV: Catastrophising

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”

 – Michel de Montaigne

Imagine you have a superpower – the ability to see calamities before they occur. You wake in the morning and you see that your boss will call you into her office to discuss your poor performance. You go out to a movie with your partner, and before you leave the house, you see that a drunk guy will start a fight with you. You are trying to get to sleep and you see the terrible accident your daughter will have tomorrow at school when she hits her temple on the corner of the table. You don’t foresee the good things, only the bad. Would you choose to have this superpower?

If you said “no”, well, you’re too late! You currently have this amazing ability to predict negative outcomes. When the human forebrain started to grow to its enormous size, 100,000-200,000 years ago, we likely honed this amazing ability. This superpower helped our ancestors not just deal with current disasters, but to avoid future disasters as well. Our very ancient ancestors had to make-do with this this survival equation:

Experience Disaster = Feel Fear = Flee (escape)

Our newer ancestors, with the Superpower, survived and thrived due to a powerful new equation:

Imagine Disaster = Feel Anxious = Act to avoid encountering disaster in the first place

There is a dark side to this power. This power allows us to see many bad outcomes, most of which will never happen. We also now live in a far safer world than our ancestors. Believe it or not, crime is at its lowest in decades. Accidental deaths are at historical lows. Bad things happen, of course, but rarely the kinds of bad things that our minds are geared-up to imagine. Nowadays we call this Superpower Catastrophising, and it is the thinking trap that underlies many anxiety disorders.

What if?

So, what does this Superpower (Catastrophising) give us today. It gives the power to ask and imagine “what if?”. For some it gives the dread of work – What if I get fired? For some it causes sleep loss – What if this lump is cancer? Catastrophising is very commonly paired with unhelpful avoidant or safety behaviours. What if I panic and make a fool of myself? Better lock myself away in the houses to avoid disaster. What if there is a fire? Better double, triple, quadruple check that the oven is off.

Planning for the worst

Many people who Catastrophise rationalise their thinking by saying that they are just preparing for the worst. Actually, there is a long and noble tradition of deliberately thinking of the worst amongst Stoic Philosophers. Two thousand years ago Roman statesman and philosopher, Seneca asserted that “nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation”. Seneca recommended the practice of Premeditatio MalorumImagining the worst at the start of the day in order to not be rattled when disaster strikes.

So how do we reconcile the usually sensible advice of the Stoics with the raw, useless anxiety of catastrophising?

The Power of Negative Thinking

The key is that catastrophising is automatic. We do not ask for it to come, it comes uninvited. It is a habit – even when nothing is going wrong the catastrophising habit will play out. We can take control of our catastrophising by deliberately thinking of the worst – by Coping Ahead.

The skill of Coping Ahead from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) actually encourages people to purposely think about negative outcomes. But, unlike catastrophising which usually ends the thought or image at the worst place (the catastrophe), when we Cope Ahead we imagine ourselves surviving and thriving afterwards.

So, let’s say we have the habit of imagining ourselves freezing while speaking at a conference and everyone laughing. With Cope Ahead, we would imagine ourselves freezing, then recovering and completing the talk well. Now, like a golfer who has mentally practiced a successful putt 100 times before a tournament, we can be prepared to act in the best way should catastrophe really strike.

Thinking is just thinking

Another approach is to remember that your thoughts are just thoughts and not reality. The catastrophes that you imagine happen in the Little World of the mind, not the big world. Writing down your fears can help remind you that these are just mental images or words, not immediate threats. And then consciousness changes – “I am safe, my mind is just catastrophising, I am safe right now”.

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