2.9 Catastrophic thinking

Of all your troubles great a and small, the greatest are the ones that don’t happen at all.” Thomas Carlyle

 There are many people whose negative thoughts take over, racing ahead to the future with a host of “What if” questions that torment them and eat away at their confidence. Thoughts like What if I fail?” What if my mother dies?” “What if my partner leaves me?”
This is what a catastrophising thought pattern looks like

  • The business isn’t doing well
  • What If I’m retrenched?
  • And what if I won’t be able to get another job?”
  • And then I won’t be able to pay my bond and I’ll lose my house.
  • And I’ll lose my car.
  • And what if none of my family and friends will help me…
  • And then I’ll end up homeless.

Anxiety can be a useful emotion when it motivates us to take action but catastrophizing is definitely not helpful- it depletes our energy when we ruminate endlessly, continually imagining irrational worst case scenarios.

Our body’s response to these thoughts is to switch into fight or flight mode because it can’t distinguish between real and imaginary threats. So our body releases adrenaline to make our heart beat faster and shunts blood to our muscles. It also releases cortisol, a stress related hormone that helps us utilize stored energy, which is great if we are running away from a sabre toothed tiger but not so great if we have a constant build-up in our stressed out bodies, weakening our immune systems.

Psychologists have identified 3 different styles of catastrophising. Do you recognise any of these?

    • One is described as a downward spiral where a story just gets worse and worse.
    • A second is a scatter shot style where all sorts of different dreadful outcomes are generated.
    • And a third is called circling or ruminating

The good news is you can escape from these thinking traps. Here’s how:

      • The starting point is to immediately challenge your thinking traps.
      • Challenge these thoughts, demand some hard evidence of what you are thinking, prove to yourself it isn’t true.
      • Say to yourself ”That is not true because….”
      • Then you can take a more optimistic perspective, saying a “A more useful way to look at this problem is …….” Try to reframe your thoughts.
      • And then make a plan.
      • Take a second to stop, breathe and go forward with a plan “If x happens, I will y.”

Your breathing is important because breathing deeply and slowly will restore your body’s balance and help you think more clearly.

When you challenge your catastrophic thinking, writing things down will help you. Start with a short description of the problem and then draw 3 columns with the headings: “Worst Case Scenario” “Probable Outcome “ and “Best Result” and fill in each column. Finally ask yourself “What purposeful action can I take?” Let’s look at an example where you have to give a presentation to the board and you are consumed with anxiety. What could the columns look like?

Worst Case scenario Probable Outcome Best Result
I’ll start shaking.

I’ll dry up

I’ll look stupid

I’ll get my figures mixed up

I have the wrong data

People won’t listen to me

I won’t be able to answer the questions


The board listens politely

They ask difficult questions.

I can answer most of them

My director supports me.

I am asked to revise certain recommendations and bring the report back to the next board meeting for approval.


I present confidently and with positive energy

The Board listen carefully.

They ask good questions.

They agree with my conclusions.

They support my proposals

They allocate the budget


And once you’ve done one of these, then take the necessary action to get to a positive outcome. In the above case the action could be to do a dry run with colleagues or practise in the mirror.

 “But there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. William Shakespeare







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