How to Stop Seeing Catastrophes Everywhere You Look
Practice seeing through the disasters the mind creates.
Posted May 01, 2020
In difficult times, our minds are good at imagining worst-case scenarios. In the coronavirus pandemic, for example, it’s easy to worry that we’re heading toward a complete breakdown of society. Most of the time these nightmares don’t come true, but they cause us a lot of misery in the form of fear and dread.
Jumping to disaster scenarios is called “Catastrophizing,” and it’s one of many thinking errors our minds often make; see this list for other types (excerpted from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple). Thankfully we can learn to recognize and challenge these ways of thinking using the practices of mindfulness-centered cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). For a general overview of the technique, see this previous post: How to Train Your Mind to Lower Anxiety.
You’ll know your mind is Catastrophizing when it fast forwards to a disastrous outcome that feels terrifying. For example, when a person learns that meat processing plants are closing, their mind leaps to, “We’re all going to starve!” It’s obviously not a good thing that there are high rates of coronavirus infections in these plants, or that some of them have closed. But that doesn’t mean the entire food supply chain is going to break down and that we’re all headed for starvation. (There’s an element of another thinking error called Fortune Telling in this fear, too, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Another clue that the mind is Catastrophizing is when you feel helpless and hopeless to deal with the scary scenario you’re imagining. When we catastrophize, we expect not only that something awful will happen but that we’ll be powerless and overwhelmed by it. Notice in the example above that the mind didn’t stop at “The food supply chain is going to break down.” It went all the way to starvation, which omits any possibility that you’ll be able to find ways to feed yourself or the people you love. But in reality, there are many ways to prepare for or manage a food shortage.
Other examples of catastrophic thinking include:
- I'm never going to see my friends again.
- My loved ones will die if they contract the coronavirus.
- Our economy will never recover from this.
- The healthcare system is going to completely collapse.
Bear in mind that CBT is not about tricking yourself into believing that everything is going to go the way you want it to. You don’t have to deny reality or pretend that bad things can’t happen. It’s possible, for example, that there will be major problems with the food supply in the U.S., as some have warned. None of us really know what the future could bring, so you probably won’t be very successful at convincing yourself that everything is going to work out fine.
The goal of mindfulness-centered CBT is to see your situation as it is. Mindfulness is about opening to the present and experiencing reality, without focusing on the future or denying actual problems. There are enough reasons to be concerned about things that are happening now, without the overlay of runaway thoughts. Mindfulness-centered CBT can also help you remember that you’re not powerless as you confront challenges. (For more CBT practices, see this free guide.)
Letting go of Catastrophizing doesn’t suggest that we shouldn’t prepare for the future as best we can, including for worst-case scenarios. It’s a good idea, for example, to have enough food on hand in case we have to self-quarantine following infection with the coronavirus. But we can recognize these preparations as safeguards against potential problems, rather than being convinced that our fearful fantasies are certain to come true.
How to Practice
When you find you’re fearing a potential catastrophe, follow these steps (adapted from The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, & Worry).
- Start by coming to your center. That’s where you can connect with the strength you have to face challenges, as you’ve done many times in the past. From this grounded place you can establish a sense of equanimity. A few slow, deep breaths can help you come home to yourself when you’re feeling scattered and off-balance.
- Next, write down the catastrophe you’re afraid of. Just writing it down can help you recognize it as an anxious thought, rather than something that’s certain to happen.
- Ask yourself if reality is likely to be as bad as you fear. Will it be worse than bad? The worst thing that’s ever happened to you? Something you would never recover from?
- See yourself living through and managing the situation, coping with it as best you can. Anxiety tells you not only that something awful will happen but that you won’t be able to deal with it. Call to mind the strength and resourcefulness you’ve shown to make it this far, and remember that those inner resources are still available to you.
If you're interested in working with a CBT therapist, consider searching the online directory on Psychology Today.
Gillihan, S. J. (2020). The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, & Worry. Eau Claire, WI: PESI.
Gillihan, S. J. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.