If you, like many people right now, are experiencing high levels of stress, you may be catastrophizing. As the name suggests, this is when your brain goes into an active anxiety spiral that leads you down a long, scary rabbit hole to the worst-case scenario. Or, in other words: a catastrophe.
I’ve definitely experienced this during the pandemic, particularly as a freelance writer with no predictable source of income. But even before COVID-19, I’ve always had an active imagination that sometimes caused adverse side effects. An edit on a story was never just a quick question from an editor; it was the end of my writing career. A disagreement with a friend wasn’t a simple misunderstanding; it meant they never wanted to speak to me again.
If this sounds familiar, here’s a crash course about catastrophizing and some tips for coping:
What does it mean to catastrophize?
Licensed mental health counselor Danielle Friedman defines catastrophizing as a type of distorted thinking that is not based in reality. Though everyone is different, Friedman says catastrophizing often presents itself in two ways:
- Present-oriented type: the perception that something is horrible right now, without evidence to support this worry
- Future-oriented type: believing something terrible will happen, without evidence to support this belief
While others may encourage sufferers to just snap out of it, Friedman says these imagined scenarios feel incredibly real and challenging. “When a person is engaged in catastrophic thinking, their heart varies, their breathing alters, and panic occurs in the present. This is true even if what they are panicking about is not true and may never happen.”
Why are more people catastrophizing?
Well, because we’re in a pandemic, to put it simply. Psychotherapist and author Jenny Maenpaa explains even if we aren’t actively panicked, our primitive brains know there is a threat to our survival looming. Because of this overlying energy, we are cycling between fight, flight, and freeze—mostly because our minds aren’t sure which response will keep us alive.
This can cause disrupted sleep patterns, constantly feeling tired, and of course, anxiety spirals. “You may find yourself wide awake when you should be sleeping, with your thoughts turning over rapidly and quickly veering into the ‘what-if?’ worst-case scenario possibilities,” Maenpaa says. “Because you aren’t as well rested, your brain isn’t able to be as rational as usual and is much more emotional and fear-based. That idea of ‘planning for the worst and hoping for the best’ is now just stopping at planning for the worst.”
How can you cope?
Over the years, I’ve found mindful and effective ways to manage these obsessive tendencies thanks to therapy, exercise, and redirecting my thought processes. Speaking with a professional can be very helpful in getting these thoughts under control. Using simple coping strategies can also help wade through this difficult, uncertain time:
1. Say “Stop” out loud.
Remember the sound a CD makes when it’s scratched? That same glitch then repeats continuously, sometimes getting worse. This could be the soundtrack for catastrophizing, and like a CD that’s stuck in a player, it’s not always easy to detect at first. Maenpaa provides this example. Say your manager put a short meeting on the calendar with you. In normal circumstances, you might think nothing of it. But when you’re in an active state of catastrophizing, Maenpaa says your thinking may go like this: “My boss scheduled a 15-minute meeting with me. That’s never happened before. I obviously royally messed up the last assignment. I ruined everyone else’s ability to do their jobs, and I cost the company money. I’ve bankrupted the company, and I’m getting fired and possibly sued.”
Yikes, right? One strategy for stopping this cycle is called “thought-stopping.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. You say “Stop!” forcefully out loud. (Since many of us are working from home right now, now is a great time to try this.) “You can also tie a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when you notice the thoughts start to spiral,” Maenpaa says.
2. Focus on ‘what is,’ rather than ‘what if.’
When it’s impossible to know what our professional and personal lives will look like in a week, a month, or a year, it’s easy to fall into the ‘what if?’ trap. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, that usually doesn’t lead anywhere positive. Instead, life coach Trish Barillas suggests replacing those two words with two different ones: ‘What is.’ “‘What if’ produces anxiety because it places everything in the future, and we know anxiety loves to plant its roots in the past and the future,” she says. “What we can be certain of, however, is fact-based answers grounded in the present moment.”
This can be as simple as replacing “What if I have to work remotely forever? What if my company downsizes? What if I lose my job? Then what?” with “I currently am working remotely; I am providing a safe place for myself and my family. I am taking it one day at a time.”
3. Try to stay in the moment.
If it’s hard to see that forest among the trees, write down the facts of your current situation. Also known as a grounding technique, Friedman says this activity forces your focus and participation, preventing your mind from spiraling. Start by playing an old childhood classic game, I Spy, where you take note of everything around you, from scents and colors to sounds. Then, make a list of what in your current world—physically and emotionally—you have control over in this given moment.
Because anxiety is linked to feeling out of control, Friedman says making a list of concrete action items helps to regain a sense of stability and control. “Create a plan for how to manage what is real. Write it down, so it’s tangible. If you just make a mental plan, you can run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, trying to remember it,” she says. “Set a mental boundary between each task. If you find yourself thinking into the future, guide yourself back to the present.”
And these “to-do” items don’t have to be groundbreaking. Instead, they should include all forms of productivity, including working, going for a walk, cleaning, sleeping, exercising, cooking, and so on. The point is to stay in your current life, rather than feeling the pressure of a tomorrow we can’t predict.
4. Let the thoughts just be thoughts.
The next time you feel your anxiety bubbling, pause whatever you’re doing, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. As thoughts run through your mind, try not to grab onto them, which will cause them to fester. Rather, let them pass and give them the proper label.
This return to mindfulness can be impactful since it provides us with the dose of perspective and rational thinking that we need and crave, says licensed psychologist Naomi Ben-Ami. “Recognize that these are just ideas. Ask yourself ‘Are these thoughts catastrophic?’,” she says. “When you identify thoughts as catastrophic, you start to change your relationship with them. You may not be able to make them disappear, but you can be more in control of what you do with them.”
5. Find the good behind the worry.
A silver lining might feel far-fetched when you’re nervous about your career or health, but catastrophic thinking often sprouts because of a deep level of care. In my case, I can spiral about my work because I love it. The same is true with friendships or my relationship. That’s why licensed psychologist Julie Kolzet encourages professionals to look for the good behind the worry. After all, you wouldn’t stress about it if it didn’t mean something to you. “Understanding why a thought is so distressing can not only be informative—it can be transformative,” she says. “It can help you keep things in perspective and create meaning during this difficult time.”