5 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing

When all feels lost, try these techniques.

Posted Nov 16, 2016

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

The recent election continues to have a measurable impact on people's moods, with many of my clients (and friends and family) expressing fear, sadness, and anger. Of course, developing a plan to fight for what one believes in and expressing one's values in meaningful ways, both big and small, help us feel less hopeless and more autonomous. Indeed, many concerned citizens are moving toward action.

But as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, however, I am trying to help people adjust their thinking, not just their behavior. How can I feel less hopeless? What can I do to stop the downward spiral of catastrophic thinking? Helpful therapeutic techniques can benefit you even if you never set foot in a therapist's office. The following five techniques can help shift your thinking—not into complacency, but into hope and health, which will help you move toward action.

1. Don't exaggerate. Stay specific.

One of the most common cognitive errors underlying catastrophic thinking involves exaggerating the effect of something negative, like believing that because some people feel a certain way, then everyone must. Or imagining that if one aspect of your life is going poorly, then your entire life is falling apart. All-or-nothing and black-and-white thinking are cousins to this mindset. When you engage in these types of thinking, it becomes less and less possible to salvage ways to be optimistic, because the whole of your perspective is being painted over with a negative brush. To change your way of thinking, start small: What aspects of your home, your daily routine, and your loved ones continue to bring you joy and comfort? What pieces of your life still feel good to you? What parts of your life feel safe, make you laugh, bring you pleasure, and keep you relaxed? Don't let those be tainted by thinking in overgeneralized terms.

2. Sleep. Yes, sleep.

We all know that we feel worse when we are sleep-deprived: It often makes us more irritable and unable to think clearly. We may be aware of how this affects our interactions with others, but we often are less aware of how much it can distort our perspective on the world. There is evidence that sleep deprivation makes us more hypersensitive to threat, which leads us to more negative interpretations of things; the result is that we become focused on molehills which we then turn into mountains. Evolution likely has bred this into us: A sleep-deprived organism is more vulnerable to predators, so our brains overcompensate and go on high alert. In modern times, however, this can do more harm than good. 

3. Understand that thoughts do not define you.

Often, part of what sets off a downward spiral in motion is not just our negative thoughts ("The whole world has gone to pot!"), but the fact that we're also very upset about having those thoughts in the first place ("Why do I always think like this? What is wrong with me?"). This makes for something of a double-whammy. Many of us are trained to believe that we are defined by our thoughts, so we believe that they either must be true, or that they say something fundamentally important about ourselves. One premise of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is that we all have thoughts that are disturbing at times, and if we  acknowledge them simply as thoughts and let them pass, we are less likely to become mired in them. The difference between a thought that sticks and becomes an obsession and a thought that merely floats by largely has to do with what we choose to make of it. Try observing your thoughts as an unbiased third party: "I'm having the thought that the world is hopeless. OK, I think that way sometimes, usually because of the mood I'm in. But like any thought, it will go eventually. It doesn't have to be true or represent who I am. I'm going to sit with it and watch it pass."

4. Don't conflate the present (or the past) with the future.

Hopelessness can be a defining feature of depression, and is often what separates those who feel that life is fundamentally worth it from those who struggle to maintain that belief. Many hopeless feelings can be traced to the original cognitive error of applying whatever's happening in the present to the future, both short-term and long-term. It often is an easy to assume that because things are a certain way now, they will always be that way. We may find it much more difficult to imagine what it will feel like when things change, similar to someone who's been sick for so long they don't believe they'll ever get better. This is also seen in learned helplessness, when a person comes to believe that if they didn't have control over something at some point in the past, they will never have control over it again—and shouldn't even bother to try.

5. Get physical.

Fresh air. Chopping vegetables. A run. The feel of garden soil on your fingers. A deep breath. A particularly good round of stretching. A hot bath. Hammering a nail. The soothing repetition of knitting or embroidery. These physical motions have all been shown to help people reduce anxious distress in the moment. This is, in part, because they bring you into the present by helping you interact in the here and now with your surroundings, making it harder to dwell on the past or the future. When you take a walk and see those individually changing leaves on that spectacular maple, you feel more clearly anchored in your world. It's mindfulness at its best, and the more physical you can be, the more you may benefit from exercise-induced endorphin surges as well.

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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.
Source: Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. She is the author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World and The Friendship Fix, and her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more nearly twelve years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator on mental health issues. Send your mental health questions to the column at baggage@wpost.com.