Ever heard of catastrophising? It could be subtly dictating your life

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  • Plus, why you may be experiencing it now worse than ever

    You’ve all heard of anxiety and depressionmental health conditions that can make you feel sick to your stomach with nerves, or like you’re being followed by a dull, grey cloud – and yet, you’re probably less familiar with catastrophising.

    Heard the term but not sure how to know if you’re catastrophising? Answer these questions.

    Do you ever sit worrying about things that could happen in the future, or go over and over something a colleague said to you hours after it happened? Have you ever found yourself assuming a friend will feel a certain way after a chat and then beat yourself up about how you handled it? Or, have you ever gotten into a proper tailspin about a situation that is, factually, yet to happen?

    Then yep, you’ve fallen victim to catastrophising. In short, the term explains getting stuck in a mindset that makes you assume the worst will happen, shares life coach and master of psychology Ruth Kudzi. “It can be a symptom of many mental illnesses, and it can determinately affect your day-to-day life,” she explains.

    In a year that’s been unprecedented and seen record-high levels of redundancies, job losses, furloughs, and, sadly, deaths,, mental health issues are on the rise. It’s no surprise that people are catastrophising more than ever, explains doctor Aria, psychologist at California Walnuts. From PTSD, to stress, to anxiety, to depression, the sheer strain of the pandemic is taking its toll on pretty much everyone’s mental health – catastrophising being no exception.

    You may feel fine day-to-day, but subconsciously be jumping to scarily negative conclusions – all the time. That’s why we’ve written this expert breakdown explaining what catastrophising is, how it can affect your mental health, and seven simple steps to avoid it turning into a habit.

    A woman looking scared, sad and lonely

    Why is catastrophising on the rise?

    We’ve all been on an emotional rollercoaster over the last year, explains Ruth. “Many of us feel out of control and fear the unknown. Phone use has increased massively during lockdown as many people are looking for connection, support, and clarification on what is happening in the world – we’re all longing for answers, clarity, and connection and yet scrolling through negative news and the world in crisis, instead, without the ability to stop or step back,” she shares.

    This, in turn, can lead to catastrophising. Humans are often drawn toward the habit as we are hardwired to focus on negatives, explains the coach. “We convince ourselves the worst will happen – it’s linked to our primal instinct for survival. That way, you can kid yourself you know enough to be prepared. We don’t respond well to uncertainty and therefore try to look at what we can control and try our best to fill in the gaps and try to find the answers,” she adds.

    Doctor Aria agrees, adding that research indicates that our brains are highly attuned to negative aspects of a situation. What causes this greater sensitivity to negativity, you ask? As above: survival.

    “From the start of human history, our survival depended on our ability to stay out of harm’s way. The easiest way to avoid being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger was to know where the saber-toothed tiger was,” he explains. So, the tendency for the human mind to think negatively is actually an evolutionary hangover, if you will. “This is completely natural,” he adds, “and it’s why your mind makes negative judgments and conjures up worst-case scenarios (i.e. catastrophises). It is not your fault. It is simply the way that the brain has developed over millions of years, in order to ensure your survival.”

    What can trigger catastrophising?

    A whole load of things, but the triggering ‘new normal’ that we’re currently living in won’t be helping, according to both experts.

    “Internal events, like anxiety, low mood, disappointment, fear, anger, or panic, and external events, particularly those with ambiguous outcomes, like the current COVID situation, can trigger and exacerbate catastrophising,” explains doctor Aria.

    Ruth agrees, adding that previous or recurring trauma, and lack of experience, information, or control over a situation can foster catastrophising, too. “Others can also exacerbate it by reflecting their own worries and anxieties onto you,” she adds.

    How can catastrophising affect your mental health over a long period of time?

    In short, it can lead to overwhelm, heightened anxiety, self-sabotage, and ultimately burn out, shares Ruth.

    “While catastrophising can help to keep you ‘alive’, it’s a counterproductive safety strategy when it comes to being happy,” doctor Aria continues. Thate’s because we’re living in a time of major social, political and economic uncertainty and challenge and experiencing increasing pressure in our daily lives, he explains. “At a time where there’s more uncertainty than ever before, there’s huge potential to fuel your mind with catastrophises. Your minds can easily latch onto worst-case scenarios and fall into a downward spiral.”

    7 simple ways to avoid catastrophising

    So, you’ve identified yourself catastrophising and want to educate yourself on the simple steps you can take to stop yourself from doing it. Don’t worry – we’ve got expert help at hand.

    1. Learn to recognise when you’re catastrophising

    Catastrophising is essentially based on two assumed premises: number one, that the worst-case outcome will occur; and number two, that if this scenario transpires, you will be unable to cope and your life will take a disastrous turn, explains doctor Aria.

    “We can only change what we’re aware of. The first step therefore is to become aware when your mind is making extremely negative predictions. Write down any worries or fears that you have. This will allow you to create some space between yourself and your thoughts,” he advises.

    2. Ask yourself what you can control

    Next step: remember to allow yourself time and space to reflect and feel, Ruth recommends.

    “Acknowledge your feelings and emotions and sit with them. Allow yourself to process them. Then every-time you feel angry, overwhelmed, sad, under pressure – allow yourself to just be. Give yourself permission to feel. You can even say aloud ‘it’s ok to feel this’,” she shares.

    When you have allowed time for processing, go back to focusing on what you can control. “What can you do right now that will help you feel better? What will help your mindset?,” she asks. Writing a list of things that help in this situation – taking a bath, cooking a nice meal, and so on – could help. Our list of self care ideas is a great place to start, if you’re stuck. “Address your thinking and behavioral patterns,” she advises. “Actively try to identify your irrational thoughts and replace them with rational ones,”

    3. Set boundaries

    Again, this one is important and something that’s often forgotten.

    “Remember, you are in control of what you see,” explains Ruth. “If there are certain people, channels, or news outlets that make you angry, upset, frustrated, or overwhelmed, you can mute them or hide them for a while,” she shares.

    Her other top tips for digital wellbeing?

    • Set yourself online hours
    • Put your laptop or mobile out of sight when it’s not ‘online time’, or put them in a drawer or out of reach
    • Avoid tech come bed time
    • Try and establish a new bedtime routine for relaxation.

    4. Schedule your day

    You all know that having a routine and trying to schedule your day can be beneficial, but it’s particularly important to avoid long periods sat in your own thoughts which can lead to spiralling thoughts, shares Ruth.

    “Routines provide a sense of control and stability. Be kind to yourself. Try to fit in some mood-boosting activities such as going for a walk or writing down what you’re grateful for, no matter how small they may be,” she explains.

    5. Connect with others

    You may be physically living alone or with a few others, but you are not alone. Plus, reaching out to someone and chatting through your worries is never a bad idea – you know how the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.

    “Chat through your thoughts and worries with people you love. I would recommend that you schedule a call with friends or family – it’ll give you something to look forward to, rather than anticipating the call and waiting for it to happen,” Ruth shares.

    6. Remind yourself of reality

    Doctor Aria makes a very good point here: just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean it’s true.

    “Remind yourself that you don’t have a crystal ball. You don’t know the future. Right now all you can do is deal with the present reality, one moment at a time.” Hear, hear.

    7. Seek support

    Finally, if you do feel like catastrophising is taking up way more of your mental capacity than you’d care to admit, do ask for help. There are many charities that can help you if you’re feeling like you’re catastrophising, and are overwhelmed and anxious. “MIND charity is a good place to start,” advises Ruth. “After seeing a doctor and if they recommend it, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also a talk therapy that could help.”

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