“I didn’t study as much as my peers. I am not as prepared as I thought I would be. I will probably perform poorly on this exam. My overall GPA will drop and I’m going to have to retake this course. I won’t ever make it in this field – I’m not smart enough. I’ll never find work and am going to be without options!”
Anyone else familiar with how wildly our minds can spin-out when under pressure? This pattern of thinking is a common cognitive distortion called catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is when we irrationally believe something is far worse than it actually is. Here are a few tips in combatting these irrational patterns:
Take Notice: Becoming aware of your thought pattern and noticing when you are catastrophizing is an important and relevant skill if you want to do anything about replacing them with healthier thoughts. Briefly writing down your thought and the precipitating event may help you notice what thoughts or situations often lead to catastrophic thinking patterns. Download this thought log to get started.
Take Inventory of the Positive: When we catastrophize, we are often magnifying the negative aspects of a situation. By choosing to take inventory of both the negative and positive aspects, you are practicing a realistic evaluation of the facts. When you do this, you are more likely to stay calm and focus on what you are able to control.
Check the Evidence: When you find you are catastrophizing, ask yourself how likely it is that the catastrophe you are focused on will come to fruition? What evidence do you have for and against this thought? What would you tell someone else who was having this thought?
Click this link for more ideas of questions to ask yourself when challenging irrational thoughts.
When we apply these skills, our thoughts are more likely to sound like this:
“I didn’t study as much as my peers, but I was able to study x hours (inventory of the positive). I studied just a few hours more for the last test, and made a good grade then (check the evidence). Just a few hours less isn’t likely to cause me to fail this time (check the evidence). I can’t change how much time I spent studying, so I will focus on what I know.”
Stopping yourself from catastrophizing takes time and conscious effort. You are rerouting the neural pathway your brain is using for problem solving. Have compassion and trust your efforts.
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” -Henry David Thoreau