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Catastrophising, or catastrophic thinking is an unconscious habit that lots of people with anxiety have without realising it. When it takes a hold it really ramps up your experience of anxiety and makes you feel like you are doomed to end up living all of your worst case scenarios at once. It’s scary, inhibiting, depressing and really unhelpful – although it is, like many of the other elements of anxiety, actually evidence of your unconscious mind doing its best to protect you from danger.

If you think you might be catastrophising, this will help:

  • For the next couple of days, do your best to capture and write down your thoughts. You won’t be able to get them all and that’s ok, that’s not what this exercise is about. It’s important that you write down the thoughts you become aware of though – evidence suggests it’s best done by physically writing notes on paper, but capturing them on your phone or laptop is ok too. What you’re after is a record that you can look back on.
  • It’s particularly important to do this if you find yourself in a moment where your anxiety is growing – do your best to capture the thoughts and feelings you were having just before you started noticing your increasing anxiety, and the direction the thoughts have been taking as your anxiety has grown
  • Once you have a couple of days’ worth, look back over the thoughts you have captured and notice where you have been catastrophising. A typical run of catastrophic thinking might go something like this:
    • “If I don’t go to work I might not get paid but I’m scared of going out in case I catch the virus. If I don’t get paid I won’t be able to pay my bills and I’ll get into debt and then I’ll lose my home and my job. But if I do go to work and catch the virus then even if I don’t get ill I could pass it on to X who’s really vulnerable and then they might die and it will be my fault and I’ll never be able to forgive myself”
  • In this example I hope you can see how the thought process goes down an increasingly negative spiral and it seems like there’s no way to get off. You’ll typically be thinking so fast that you might not recognise consciously what’s going on and only recognise what’s happened when you become aware that you’re obsessing about ending up homeless and destitute and/or having been responsible for the deaths of all your loved ones.
  • The way to stop spiralling anxiety and obsessional thinking is to ask yourself “What else might happen instead?” at every point where you’ve made a negative statement to yourself. So in the example I’ve given above that could look something like this:
    • “If I don’t go to work I might not get paid” – What might happen instead? I might get some or all of my salary – I can check with my employer to find out whether I’m considered essential and if not, what arrangements they are making to pay me
    •  “I’m scared of going out in case I catch the virus” – What might happen instead? I could go out having made sure I know exactly what the rules are for social distancing and done everything I can to protect myself and others, both when I go out , while I’m out and when I get back home. That way I will know I’ve done all I can to protect myself and the people I love
    • “If I don’t get paid I won’t be able to pay my bills and I’ll get into debt and then I’ll lose my home and my job” – What might happen instead? The Government is putting lots of support in place, and my employer may be doing the same, to help people in my position. I can take action now to put a new budgeting plan in place to ensure I manage my money effectively over the next few months. I can find out what help my bank, my landlord and my creditors are offering and work proactively with them to make sure they are aware of my situation
    • “But if I do go to work and catch the virus then even if I don’t get ill I could pass it on to X who’s really vulnerable and then they might die and it will be my fault and I’ll never be able to forgive myself” – What might happen instead? I can follow all the government guidelines as above. If I am a key worker I could arrange to live somewhere else temporarily to protect the people I live with or arrange for them to live elsewhere if that’s more sensible. At least if anyone gets ill I will know I’ve done everything possible to protect them
  • The more you do this, the easier it will get, and the better you’ll get at recognising when you’re catastrophising. You can also enlist help if you are given to catastrophising out loud, like My Lovely Husband. I used to tell him every time I heard him doing it  and we have now got him to the stage where he can correct himself, so he will now say something like this:
    • “Well that’s gone wrong so the day is ruined and we’ll never be able to put x right…no hang on, I’m catastrophising…right, what can I do to put x right? OK then, I’ll do that. Cup of tea first.”

If you would like to talk through any issues arising from this download please drop me a line at cathy@therapeuticcoaching.co.uk to arrange your free no-obligation coaching session with me

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