For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the tendency to think in terms of worst-case scenarios: If I had a paper due in one of my classes, I might worry that I wouldn’t have enough time to finish. If I didn’t finish the paper, I would imagine myself getting behind in all of the other assignments I had to do for class, too. My mind would then flash-forward to me thinking about failing that class, ruining my GPA, ruining my chances of getting a good job, and–after even more thinking along these same lines–eventually leaving me with no money to pay rent or buy groceries, and so on and so on. There were many, many nights when I wasn’t able to sleep while my mind raced uncontrollably through all of the potential horrible outcomes I could imagine for some of my everyday problems.
This is called catastrophizing: Letting a single worry progress and grow, until it snowballs into something huge and, if you’re honest with yourself, pretty darn unrealistic. Nowadays I know that if I have a paper due, I will find time to finish it–I just will. Even if I have trouble getting it done, I know I can talk to my teacher if I need some help. If I end up getting a not-so-great grade on the paper, I know that that’s not the end of things for me, either–there are ways to bring my overall grade back up, as long as I apply myself. I know I’m going to always have a good job, because I work very hard and I’m a very competent person.
So how do you counter Catastophizing thoughts? You have to stop them right away, before they have the chance to begin growing. Just as with any other negative thought, you need to learn to recognize when you’re Catastrophizing. You can do this by paying attention to what you’re thinking on a daily basis, and keeping a Daily Thought Record . When you notice a negative thought starting to pop up in your head, you need to make a conscious effort to stop that thought–you’ve literally got to think the phrase, “Stop Thought!”, and then substitute an effective counter for that thought.
For example: If you’re worried about a speech you have to give tomorrow and you start worrying about forgetting your words, and then dropping your note-cards all over the floor, and then hearing everyone in the room starting to laugh, and so on and so on–you need to stop the negative thought patterns as soon as possible, and then replace them with more positive thoughts. Remind yourself that you have been preparing for your speech for a long time, and that even if you forget the exact words you want to say, you know enough about your topic to keep talking until you remember your next point. If you have to pause for a moment to gather your thoughts, there’s nothing wrong with that. No matter what happens, it’s not the end of the world: You are capable of getting back on track, and your audience wants to hear what you have to say.
Remember to visit with someone you trust about some of the Catastrophizing Automatic Thoughts you may be having, so they can help you can recognize any common themes and start coming up with effective counters to those thoughts.
Keep reading about all of the other types of Automatic Thoughts, and keep building a more positive outlook!