I’ve been at my family’s house in the country this week, and we have chickens, so I’ve been thinking about chickens (real chickens, not my podcast listeners). If you’ve ever hung out with chickens, you’ve seen they do not have managed minds—they get freaked all the time for no reason.
Much like real chickens, many of us run around clucking and panicking, even when nothing has happened yet, so I want to teach you about catastrophizing—the habit of imagining all the possible future negative scenarios that could happen and emotionally reacting as if they’re real.
For instance, you get an email from your boss, and immediately you start worrying she hates you, you’re going to get fired, and you’ll end up living in a van. Or someone you’ve been dating calls you and doesn’t leave a message, so you immediately panic—assuming they were calling to break up, and now you’re going to die alone.
When you do this, you’re catastrophizing. You’re predicting a worst-case outcome, a catastrophe, when nothing has actually happened yet. The problem is your brain doesn’t know nothing has happened yet, so it releases cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones, and then your body feels like it’s actually happening to you.
Spinning out from any innocent event to the worst possible outcome can arise from different sources. Some of us came from families where we were taught to think this way. Some of us had professional training where we were literally taught that imagining all the possible negative outcomes of an event or agreement was our job, and that it was malpractice NOT to do it.
But all of us are predisposed to this, because human brains evolved to find this helpful. Remember, your brain evolved to keep you alive to pass down your genes. The primitive part of your brain, what I often call your lizard brain, doesn’t care if you’re happy, fulfilled, or sleep well at night. It just wants you to stay alive. Catastrophizing cuts down on risk taking (and growth), but if catastrophizing keeps you in the cave where you’re physically safe from predators, your brain thinks it’s a useful tool.
The advice you’ll often hear about catastrophizing is to reassure yourself that the worst probably won’t happen. I don’t find that very effective for me or my clients. It’s just empty reassurance that doesn’t quiet the part of your brain that is yelling, “OK, YEAH, BUT WHAT IF IT DOES?”
So I have 3 techniques I suggest using instead:
#1: I recommend taking it all the way—really play it out. What if you DO actually get fired, for instance? For many of us, the worst thing that happens if we get fired is we ask friends/family for help while we find another job. If your partner dumps you, then what? What will actually happen? Realistically? You’ll cry a bit, feel sad for a while, heal, and love again.
The key is to really push the scenario through. Get concrete. Don’t just accept your brain’s story that it’s clearly a disaster and everyone dies. And if it’s a rare circumstance where the real situation would be a true disaster, use that information to create a plan ahead of time for what you would do.
#2: A second technique is to look at your past for evidence you can survive. Most of us have been dumped, been fired, gotten sick, totaled a car, or whatever thing we’re worried about. And we’ve survived. Might not be fun, but we made it.
#3: A third tool is to ask yourself why you’re so afraid of the possibility your brain is catastrophizing about. For some of us, yes, it’s life or death, but for most of us it isn’t. Most of us are actually just afraid of what we’re going to think or feel. In other words, we’re scared we’ll be mean to ourselves. And that’s something you can decide ahead of time not to do no matter what.
So often we catastrophize out of fear we might have a thought or a feeling. But we get to decide what to think and feel. You can decide that even if you do get fired, you’re never going to call yourself a failure. You can decide that even if you do get dumped, you’re never going to call yourself unlovable. If you take responsibility for what you’ll think and feel in the future, you’ll have much less to fear.
Whichever of these 3 techniques you choose, the key is not to just try to tell yourself something won’t happen, but instead to actively engage in managing the thoughts. What you’ll find is that, once you start doing this, your brain will calm down enough to believe calmer thoughts like, “oh, it probably won’t even happen.”
But you can’t get there directly—you need to play out the scenario, see you have options even if the worst happens, decide ahead of time what to think—and then your brain will calm down enough to see it’s pretty unlikely and not worth worrying about after all.