At some point in our lives, we have all likely been caught in one of the most common processes our brain uses to trick us… Catastrophising. The process of catastrophising (sometimes referred to as catastrophic thinking) is a normal reaction to stressful situations in which we ‘think of the worst’ or worry about scenarios, events, or situations where the worst-case scenario may happen.

From time to time, this can be useful as it prompts us to prepare for that upcoming test or rehearse for our approaching job interview. However, when this thinking becomes frequent, repetitive, and interferes with our daily lives it can be symptomatic of psychological difficulties including anxiety or low mood.

What is Catastrophisation?

When working to reduce catastrophising, it’s important to remember that this often stems from uncertainty; of what is going to happen, of how you will be perceived, or that you won’t have the ability to complete the task that stands in your way.

At a biological level, our brain likes certainty, and so when it is encountered with the unknown it activates our nervous system leading to anxiety. Although the anxiety generated by these thoughts can be distressing, it’s important to remember that your anxiety is short-sighted. It doesn’t look at the many countless possibilities of what could happen- it only fixates on the worst-case scenarios. The issue when we condense our worries into singular negative possibilities is that we don’t understand the step-by-step process that would have to occur in order for us to end up there.

Playing the movie until the end

In a therapy setting, it is often useful to question negative thought processes with “what is more likely to happen?” and here, we utilise our skill of ‘playing the movie until the end’. Using this technique we can explore the definitions and precise worries that we think may happen, and identify the likelihood of these situations happening. Below we use an example with a job interview, however, this can be applied to catastrophic thinking surrounding generalised anxiety, panic attacks, low mood and stress.

De-catastrophising: An example

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are worried about not getting a job interview. It is often easy to catastrophise in these moments and often people will share their stories with me that may sound like “I’m worried about not getting the job interview because if I don’t my partner will leave me, my friends will think I’m a joke, I won’t be able to make any money and I’ll be unhappy the rest of my life”.

What we need to do in this instance is play through the anxiety like a movie, and reflect on the assumptions that we may be making:

Part 1: “I am not going to get the job interview” – Is there any possibility that you will?

Part 2: “Your partner will only stay with you if you get this job interview” – Are there other reasons why your partner may be with you other than this job?

Part 3: “Your friends are only interested in your career and not your friendship” – Do your friends value anything else about your friendship?

Part 4: “You will have no money and not be able to make any money as a result of not getting the interview” – Are there any other ways you could make money?

Part 5: I”f you do not get this job, you will be unhappy for the rest of your life” – What else brings joy or happiness to your life?

As you can see, when we play the movie to the end, it is easier to recognise the far-fetched nature of these thoughts. It is essential when using any Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tool that you gain consistent practice over time. Like any other skill, it can take some time for you to develop, but persistence is key. So, next time you notice that your mind drifts into catastrophic thinking, play the movie until the end.

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