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From Panic to Peace: How to Manage Catastrophic Thinking

Can you think back to a time in high school when you bombed a test? We’ve all done it, and the cold, hard reality of failure at that moment, at that age, is gut-wrenching. When this happened to you, did the outcome send you into an irrational anxiety spiral?

If you were lucky, failing a test back then meant little more than a shrug of the shoulders and hope you’d do better next time. You might have used the experience as healthy motivation to study harder for the next test. If you were prone to catastrophizing, this single failure might have felt like the worst day of your life.

What is catastrophizing?

When you catastrophize, a single setback quickly puts you on a worst-case-scenario anxiety trip. You convince yourself that failing one test will undoubtedly lead to failing high school, never getting into college, not securing a good job, and living in your parents’ musty basement with far too many pets for the rest of your life.

Whether you catastrophize or not, you probably know someone who does. They might balk at the slightest hint of adversity, quickly ticking off the list of possible setbacks when something goes awry. Rather than seeing a situation realistically, catastrophizes refuse to right size their reaction and go straight to the darkest possible place. What is, in reality, a small matter is suddenly a huge, life-altering problem.

Why do we spiral?

Your body is actually designed to prepare for problems. From a physiological perspective, every thought you have passes through your amygdala. This part of your brain works 24/7 to detect threats to survival and well-being. The amygdala monitors every stimulus for risk, and it’s never off-duty.

When you learn how your brain processes thoughts, you can see how you might slip into catastrophizing, especially in high-stress situations. Taking a step back, you might realize that society panders to these calamity-claiming instincts, creating an environment ripe for the worst-case scenario. A huge influence can be a constant incoming stream of negative news. Studies suggest this can lead to catastrophic thinking despite our brain’s predisposition to stay vigilant.

Think about it—you’ve probably experienced emotional distress after exposure to news stories—television and social media can be particularly affecting. You may notice intrusive thoughts about current events, anger, resentment, or anxiety, and even increased substance use to cope with news-induced stress.

Don’t look down

Our brains are designed to detect threats. Sometimes, this world feels full of them, but you don’t have to fall down a rabbit hole of tragedy. You are capable of coping with a catastrophe without becoming consumed by the negative.

To shift your perspective, consider reflecting on how you learned to expect the worst. Detecting danger is a crucial part of our physiology, but catastrophizing isn’t natural. It’s actually a learned behavior.

Some develop this behavior as a means to survive a challenging situation. Others adopt catastrophizing to cope with life’s everyday pressures. Get curious about how and when you developed this instinct.

Question what’s inside

The next time you face adversity and feel yourself going to a dark place, pause. Take a moment to investigate your head and your heart. Ask yourself, “what is actually true in this situation?” Your answer may surprise you.

Is the truth leading you to sense danger? Or is it your perception? The more you question, the easier you’ll find you can separate fears rooted in reality from those you fabricate. When you identify legitimate fears that may be holding you back from achieving a goal, explore the origins, motivations, and triggers of that fear.

As you probe your heart, check in with the rest of your body. Most sensations pass from body to brain, so there may be physical factors leading you to catastrophize. Psychologists suggest exercise, time outdoors, and breathing exercises to work toward controlling these sensations.

Don’t flip the narrative

When attempting to escape the antagonism of catastrophism, going to the other extreme, toxic gratitude, is a natural response. But covering irrational negativity with false positivity isn’t the answer. As I wrote earlier this month, toxic gratitude can distract you from dealing with what might be a very real issue.

Artificial positivity can actually deepen the fear you’re trying to escape, worsening the feelings and inhibiting your personal growth. You might think a good way to cope is to simply “think good thoughts,” but that isn’t the right answer if there’s an issue you need to confront.

Going to the opposite extreme is a natural response, but also never works. When you adjust your mindset to avoid both catastrophism and toxic gratitude, you’ll notice an improvement in your relationships, career, and even your negotiations.

Negotiating without catastrophe

You probably know there’s little room for catastrophizing in negotiations. When you’re caught up planning for the worst, how can you strategize what you’ll say next? Or determine what your opponent really wants? Or articulate what you want, for that matter?

The best negotiators can do all this simultaneously, and when you’re sliding down an intrusive death spiral about your imminent failure, you can’t possibly keep up. Catastrophism is a distraction, insisting that you don’t deserve what you need or want from a job or in a relationship. Your fears are magnified, so how can you make, let alone achieve, aspirational asks with this perspective? You can’t.

As you prepare for a negotiation, try asking probing questions to challenge yourself. Be aware of what you’re thinking and feeling so you can be very intentional about avoiding the anxiety snowball effect. Working toward catastrophizing less is critical to realizing your power as a negotiator and your value as an individual.

So, don’t live another day assuming your next failure will be your undoing. Instead, embrace the missteps, look for the lessons, and accept that life isn’t out to get you.


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