Well-Being//

If You Constantly Build Up Situations in Your Head, Here’s How to Stop Catastrophizing

The toxic cycle of overthinking can become a major stressor, but an expert says there are ways to break free in a few simple steps.

HappyAprilBoy/ Shutterstock
HappyAprilBoy/ Shutterstock

Picture this: You have an exchange with a colleague that doesn’t go as planned. Suddenly, a wave of anxious thoughts race through your mind, and you start building up the situation, seeing it as worse than it actually was. Soon, those thoughts become a distraction, and you hold onto the regret from the brief encounter. If this scenario sounds familiar, you may struggle with what psychologists call “catastrophizing,” and the habit can lead to a pattern that is stressful, and potentially toxic. 

“Certain people are simply more prone to catastrophizing,” Traci Stein, Ph.D., M.P.H., a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, tells Thrive. “Sometimes it’s because we were raised by people who compulsively focused on the negative… and sometimes it’s because we’re generally more anxious by nature.” Stein says that whatever the reason behind your habit, catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion, and it can become a more persistent pattern over time. “Catastrophizing causes you to magnify the negatives, and ignore the positives,” she explains. “It can cause significant distress, and can lead people to avoid doing things for fear of messing up.”

Although catastrophizing can take a toll on your well-being, Stein notes that there are ways to break free from the stressful cycle — and doing so comes down to a simple four-step process. Here’s how to get started.

1. Step back and identify

When you walk away from a situation and think of it as worse than it is, the persistent thoughts that run through your mind can make you instantly anxious, but Stein says that it’s important to take an initial step back, and simply accept the fact that you may be blowing things out of proportion. “Identify that you are, in fact, catastrophizing,” she urges. If you have trouble seeing it for yourself, ask for a second opinion. “Check in with a trusted friend if you’re not sure whether you are making mountains out of mole hills,” Stein suggests. “Most of the time, situations are more nuanced, and there is more opportunity to learn and grow from them than we realize when we’re stressed.”

2. Play devil’s advocate

Once you become aware that you may be overthinking a scenario, Stein recommends playing devil’s advocate in your mind to help you shift your perspective. “Examine the evidence for and against your catastrophic conclusion,” she says. And if an experience legitimately is somewhat catastrophic, like navigating a personal financial crisis or losing your job, it’s important to acknowledge the challenges, but also ask yourself what you can gain from the experience, instead of simply endlessly ruminating on its negative repercussions. “Most people can learn from a negative situation,” she adds. “Use it to turn things around going forward.”

3. Turn the tables

Because catastrophizing shifts the way you see a situation, it can feel difficult to look at a scenario from someone else’s viewpoint. To combat this cognitive setback, Stein suggests pretending that someone else is going through the same thing, and is asking your advice. “Ask yourself how you would advise someone else in this situation,” she recommends. “Even the biggest catastrophizers will usually have a more rational and compassionate take on things when imagining someone else in their shoes.” Turning the tables will help you look at the problem from a different angle by taking yourself out of the equation. 

4. Use the “100 year rule”

A moment of panic can feel like the end of the world, and it’s easy to convince yourself that it is. Stein says that the final step in breaking free from catastrophizing is all about long-term perspective — and that’s where the “100 year rule” comes in. She suggests asking yourself, “In 100 years, will this thing that seems catastrophic really matter? How about in 20 years? Or five? Or even a month from now?” When you start as far down the line as you can imagine, and then realistically think in closer timelines, Stein explains that you can see that the current situation likely isn’t as big a deal as you’d originally thought. “If all else fails, I love using the ‘100 year rule,’” she notes. “This can be the most helpful intervention at snapping someone back to reality.”

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