For when you’re 100% convinced all hope is lost forever.
If you’re obsessing about worst-case scenarios and feeling convinced that all hope is lost, you might be doing some catastrophic thinking.
Catastrophic thinking is ruminating on absolute worst-case scenarios that are not necessarily rational or likely to happen, like being convinced that flying across the country means certain death in a plane crash or that the pain in your side is definitely terminal cancer.
Of course your plane could crash and it could be terminal cancer. But you don’t know that now, and thinking and acting as if you do — “my life is over; after all I’m about to die!” — leads to more anxiety, panic, and sometimes total paralysis about what to do next, California-based clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD, tells BuzzFeed Health.
Basically, you feel like shit’s about go down — in your life or in the world — and it’s so jarring that your usual coping mechanisms don’t work, leaving you unable to process whatever happened or even think rationally about what to do next.
The thing about catastrophic thinking is that you don’t even know you’re doing it.
And that’s because whatever you’re imagining feels totally real to you; you really do think and believe that these worst-case scenarios are imminent and inescapable. Whatever nightmarish hellscape you’re conjuring up feels totally in sync with your reality.
“Catastrophic thinking flips a switch where there’s no silver lining,” says Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. You feel such abject and endless despair that you lose hope of anything ever getting better. And what’s worse, you feel like there’s no point in taking action or taking care of yourself, which can land you in this self-fulfilling prophecy where your lack of action actually makes the situation — and your anxiety — worse.
Fortunately, there are ways to break out of this doomsday thought pattern.
Reversing catastrophic thinking isn’t about telling yourself that nothing that bad could possibly happen, because of course the worst-case scenario could actually happen.
The goal is to intervene in your thinking so that this endless obsessing doesn’t stop you from living your life — or actually make it worse. This mostly has to do with checking yourself and testing your reality. Here’s how to do that:
1. First, you have to learn to recognize when you’re doing it.
It’s a little meta, but you basically have to think about your thoughts. Are your thoughts and feelings basically all about despair and hopelessness right now? Are you having lots of all-or-nothing thoughts (like: if x happens, my life will literally be over)? If you can’t imagine a reality in which things are bad — or even really bad — but it’s not the end of the world, that’s a clue that you’re thinking catastrophically.
Another way to check yourself is to observe the way you’ve been talking or posting on social media. “Talk is reflective of the way we think,” says Bonior. So be on the lookout for themes of helplessness in your speech, like “it’s all over,” “what’s the use,” “there’s no point,” etc.
2. Start calling bullshit on your own thoughts.
If you find yourself thinking that death and disaster are imminent, Howes recommends practicing some “reality-testing” about your thought process. Ask yourself “What negative things am I experiencing right now? Is there a threat in the room with me?”
For an additional strategy, Bonior recommends challenging the rationality of your thoughts by “cross-examining” yourself. Let’s say your thought is, The world is a dystopia and everything is broken and terrible. You could cross-examine yourself by thinking, If everything is truly horrible, I won’t be able to think of one single good thing. Can I think of one thing that’s OK? If you think about your partner, art that makes you feel things, the pet you love, the sibling or cousin that makes you laugh, etc. you’ve just disproven your thought.
Of course, this doesn’t solve all your problems and make you feel completely A-OK, but it does clue you in to the fact that you were thinking catastrophically, which might help you avoid spiraling into panic or paralysis. Again, it’s not about wrangling your brain into believing that your fears are ridiculous. Your goal is to intervene in your own thoughts and reground yourself with a balanced perspective.
3. But don’t tell yourself that you’re just being ridiculous.
Of course you don’t want to give your darkest fantasies free rein over your mind. But punishing yourself for thinking catastrophically can make you feel even worse. “We have low tolerance for negative thoughts, which makes us feel worse than having the thought in the first place,” says Bonior.
Bonior says that it’s important to understand the difference between noticing and acknowledging your thoughts and getting angry with yourself for having them, which only locks you into them further, which can compound feeling helpless or powerless. Bonior says to picture a waterfall — you might occasionally see debris in the water, but just like those negative thoughts, you don’t have to grab onto it because it floats away on its own.
4. Do things that usually make you feel grounded and secure.
Because catastrophic thinking compromises feelings of control and power, it can make you feel like the whole world is totally upside down.
To combat these feelings of instability, Howes recommends connecting with some of the things in your life that are unchanging, that you have always relied on to make you feel better, or more yourself, or just more grounded in your thinking. Maybe your partner can always make you laugh or talking with your mom lifts your spirits or working out makes you feel invincible. Then go hang out with your partner, text your mom, and work out. It will help you remember that, yes, some things are topsy turvy, but some things remain beautifully unchanged.
5. Take some kind of action, especially if it’s altruistic.
An important way to intervene in catastrophic thinking is to combat the helplessness it can create. “Identify a couple things you can do to make some changes. Start a petition, join a group, write a blog. Do something that shows you that you do have some power,” says Howes.
And you don’t necessarily have to take political action, says Bonior. You can volunteer to do charity work or donate to a cause you believe in. “It always seems to help us feel better to help others… just to feel like you did something altruistic, that sense of action, even if it’s small, feels good,” she says.
6. Get some fucking sleep.
Yes, this is total self-care 101 but it turns out there is an evolutionary reason that sleep is extra important if you’re prone to catastrophic thinking. “We know that when you don’t get enough sleep, our brains process things as more threatening,” says Bonior.
This is an evolutionary protection against being, well, eaten by a predator. If you’re physically exhausted, your brain makes you hyper-aware of threats so you can avoid becoming prey. Nowadays this means that being fatigued means being more irritable and negative, and perceiving things as more threatening than they really are, all of which compound catastrophic thinking.
7. Don’t isolate yourself.
Even though you might want to curl up in bed with the internet and some good old-fashioned doomsday thinking, Howes says that in times of panic, it’s important to get out of your own space and be with other people. And it’s not simply because people are great and misery loves company. It’s because being around other people allows you to hear their perspectives and learn the different ways other people might be processing the same information as you.
8. And if you’re feeling really stuck, consider reaching out to a pro.
Howes says that if your catastrophic thinking is disrupting your life — from skipping meals and showers to losing sleep or not being able to focus at work or causing problems in your relationship — you should talk to a therapist. They can help you figure out what’s happening and why, and what strategies you can put in place to get back to a more grounded, rational way of thinking.