One of the most destructive daily habits I carried with me for a long time and I think is a very common one for many people was the thought habit of catastrophizing.
What is catastrophizing?
This is when you build up a nightmare scenario of how everything could go totally wrong in some situation and imagine a big catastrophe in your mind.
You may have a presentation tomorrow and your mind starts to pull up a scenario where you have left your notes at home, you make a fool of yourself, you are embarrassed in front the whole company and your boss yells at you for 20 minutes after the meeting.
Scary stuff for sure.
So how did I learn to handle this one?
Let me share 7 steps that have really helped me out.
Step 1: Loudly say stop to your inner critic.
The catastrophe that has started to brew in your mind comes from your inner critic.
He is telling you: “You will fail because it is what you always do.”
Or that you have not prepared enough.
Or that your boss will not be pleased with your presentation for some reason or other.
Or all of that.
So stop the inner critic quickly. In your mind, as soon as these thoughts pop up, shout:
Or: “NOPE, we are not going down that path again!”
This will disrupt that train of thought and help you to start feeling more level-headed again.
Step 2: Focus on your breathing.
After disrupting the thought be still for a minute or two. Sit down if you can.
Focus on just your in-breaths and out-breaths. Nothing else.
This will calm your body down from the stress and it helps your mind to think more clearly and to return to what is happening right now in this moment instead of being lost in future nightmares.
Step 3: Look to the past for the truth.
Think back to your past.
How many times in the past have these catastrophe scenarios that your mind throws at you actually become reality?
Never or very few times I would imagine. That has certainly been the case for me.
So remind yourself of the actual facts from the past to calm yourself down even more and to draw yourself back to the more centered version of yourself.
Step 4: Talk it through and get input from a level-headed friend.
In many situations in my own life the first three steps have helped me to snap out of the catastrophe scenario and to think more calmly and clearly.
But sometimes that combination isn’t quite enough. Maybe there are still some lingering negative thoughts and inner tensions that could start snowballing again.
If that’s the case then one thing I like to do is to let the catastrophe out. I talk it over with someone close to me.
By doing so, by just venting and having someone listening for a few minutes I can often see the situation for what it truly is. And so I calm down.
Or the person listening can help out me out a bit more if needed and lend me his or her perceptive.
That helps me to ground myself in reality again and it has also helped me many times to find a solution or a first step that I can take to start changing this situation into something better if that is needed.
Step 5: Stop making a mountain out of a molehill.
Another thing that often helps me is to ask myself a question that lets me zoom out and see if I’m honestly just making a mountain out of a molehill here (or out of nothing at all).
So I ask myself:
Will this matter in 5 years? Or even in 5 weeks?
The answer is usually that it won’t. Even though it might at first seem that way when you’re in a stressed out and anxious headspace.
Step 6: Say stop to yourself when you know you simply can’t think straight.
When I’m hungry or I need to go to bed and get some sleep then I know from experience that I’m vulnerable to catastrophizing and pessimistic thoughts.
So what do I do?
I tell myself this:
No, no, no, we are not going to think about this now. We will think about this situation or challenge later, after getting some sleep or food.
Doing that simple thing helps a lot.
Because when I’m not hungry or I’m well rested once again then my issue that I was getting worked up about will most often be small to non-existent when revisited with some clear-headed thinking.
Or it will at least be a lot easier to find a solution or a plan to improve things if there’s actually a real challenge here that I need to face.
Step 7: Reduce any weekly input that pushes these disaster scenarios into the forefront of your mind.
The people and the other sources out there like TV, social media and various websites or forums have a big influence over your thinking.
So be careful about what you let into your head on a daily and weekly basis. Ask yourself:
Is there a person or source in my life that strengthens my catastrophizing habit?
Examples of such sources could be someone who is very pessimistic or news online or a social media platform that you find is feeding too much negativity into your mind.
When you’ve found something like that in your life ask yourself:
What can I do this week to spend less or no time with this person or source?
Then take action on that and spend the time you’ve now freed up during this week with one or a few of the most optimistic sources / people in your life.
Do this – in the coming weeks or months – with as many sources as needed to piece by piece build a healthy environment for yourself and for your thoughts.