3 ways to reduce the impact of catastrophising

Catastrophising refers to a tendency to perceive a situation as far worse than it actually is.


It means often imagining the worst outcome in a situation, no matter how unlikely that outcome might be. You might consider it like a snowball rolling down a hill. It might start small but as it gets quicker and the hill is steep, it grows larger and faster until it becomes a huge ball of anxiety and fear within us.

How do we catastrophise?

We catastrophise in a couple of ways:

1. By magnifying and imagining the worst possible outcome of something and blowing it out of all proportion.

2. Building up negative thoughts of a potentially disastrous future event and reinforcing them by playing it over in your head, increasing the anxiety.

These are equally distressing for a person and prey on people's minds reducing well-being and triggering or reinforcing poor mental and physical health.

Examples of catastrophising:

  • Imagine you have had an argument with a family member. Catastrophising creates scenarios in your head that sound like: “She’s never going to speak to me ever again.", “This is a nightmare. Everyone will hate me for this!”
  • You made a small mistake at work. Instead of looking at this as a one-off incident, you might start to catastrophise about it and think: “I had a good job, but after this, I’ll never get that promotion and my boss will be on my back all the time.”, “I’ll lose my job because of this. I won’t be able to pay the mortgage. I won't be able to pay my bills. And my family will suffer. I may have to sell the house!"

These are typical examples of catastrophising. A single event, which normally people consider to be small and less significant, suddenly spirals into something much bigger and anxiety-inducing.

Catastrophising can hugely impact our lives, affecting relationships, careers, health and even day-to-day life. So it’s really important to notice when you are beginning to catastrophise and what these patterns of thought are creating for you. And then find ways to begin to manage them more helpfully for yourself.

What is happening to you from a neuroscience perspective?

When you are somewhere that creates anxiety within you or you feel stressed, this is really certain parts of your brain registering a potential threat or risk and signalling the body to react to that. You will feel specific signs of stress at that point as the body is triggered into action. In effect, your mind is predicting the worst possible scenario for you, a danger or risk to your safety, or at least an unpleasant uncomfortable event for you to experience and readies the body to deal with it. This can lead to catastrophising. Thinking worst case scenarios will trigger specific feelings, thoughts, and emotions that induce the effects of stress, anxiety and fear.

Often our instinct is to run or shy away from these situations and reduce these unpleasant feelings. This is the brain's stress response that initiates what has been called the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. It is the result of our deepest, earliest instinctive responses for survival and protection. However, although the trigger might feel like the event is causing it, actually it isn’t. It is the brain’s response to something, not the event itself that is causing the distress. 

There is a difficulty, in that as a natural response if you do run, or act to avoid the situation, it becomes more likely that you might create an association in your mind with that situation or scenario. Your brain then registers that level of anxiety and stores it as a memory associated with that scenario. It can then be recounted each time you revisit that situation or place in future and will replay it like a video in your mind creating similar anxiety or stress each time.

So, what can we do?

1. Use your breath purposefully

By using your breath purposefully you can actually calm your own nervous system down more effectively by breathing in a managed way.

Here is a breathing technique to try; breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Begin by breathing in, with your belly rather than your chest (if you aren’t sure how, put one hand on your belly as you breathe. You should feel with your hand as the belly rises and falls). Make sure your belly is rising as you breathe in rather than your chest. And then when you breathe out your belly should contract in again. 

This process is called ‘diaphragmatic breathing' also called 'abdominal breathing' or 'belly breathing'. It encourages full oxygen exchange, i.e. the incoming oxygen into the lungs is increased in relation to the outgoing carbon dioxide. This type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilise blood pressure (Harvard Medical Review).

Breathe in for four seconds, then hold your breath for a second or two and then breathe out slowly for eight seconds. Hold your breath for a second or two and start again. Do this at least four times. More if you like! (The longer you breathe purposefully, the more you will calm down.) This process takes just a minute or two and within that time you focus on breathing, on your belly, and on your counting. You will feel so much calmer after this. 

The main aspect of this breathing technique is to ensure you are breathing out for a longer period than you breathe in. Why is this so effective? Because it triggers a key system in your body called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your body that acts like the brake in a car when it’s running too fast and accelerating. You are actively applying the brake yourself in a controlled way using your breathing, and this will bring your body to a more manageable 'speed'.

You can literally do this anytime, anywhere you feel anxious or have stressful thoughts starting to take over.

2. Challenge and reframe your negative thoughts

By actively challenging catastrophic thoughts, you can create rational responses to irrational thinking by becoming more aware of what it is you are thinking about. Then ask yourself if there's real evidence to support these thoughts – challenging the thoughts rather than merely accepting them as factual. And then deciding to choose a different reason for that thought. Often, catastrophising involves irrational thinking and the thoughts in our heads have no substance when challenged.

Then consider an alternative thought, what could be a more realistic explanation for the situation? In effect, what would be better to believe about this? Challenge your negative assumptions and replace them with more balanced positive thoughts. 

If you can, seek the advice or perspective of a person you trust who knows you, to gain a more objective view of the situation.

Challenging negative thoughts will guide you through your thinking and enable you to find more helpful outcomes for your thoughts.

3. Managing discomfort

Although difficult, sometimes a strategy might be to learn to be able to sit with the stress or fear if you can and be brave enough to try to stay in that place or activity, even if stressful or uncomfortable to begin with, so you offer yourself the time to allow those feelings to naturally subside within you. 

Normally if you can do this, they will subside in around 15 minutes and you will start to feel less uncomfortable as the brain realises it is not a real threat or a life-or-death situation. It will naturally then begin to calm down and reduce the ‘high alert’ signals it is sending to the body.

The caveat with this is clearly if you are in a ‘dangerous situation or personal physical threat’ that is entirely a different matter because personal security isn’t a memory or created through thoughts, it is an actual state of being. But for the most part, the danger will be sitting within our heads not our environment. It is more because we are assuming and then predicting something bad will happen. Mostly it is far less likely than we think.

Understanding this and that you can take action to cope with anxious thoughts and be safe, means you have some opportunity to overcome the anxiety. And that if you can sit with the discomfort, these thoughts will start to subside as you see there is no real danger.

Your mind will be able to consider other thoughts and your body will have time to flush the stress chemicals, such as cortisol, from your system and you can feel more comfortable. And just knowing this will help you take back some control. Perhaps even get someone to be with you to support you through a scenario if that might be helpful.

Remember that reducing catastrophising is a process, not merely an on-off button you can push. It requires some effort and practice on your part, but it is entirely within your ability to achieve. 

If you find it challenging to manage your negative thinking on your own, and you would like some support with overwhelm, feeling anxious, anxious thoughts, and want to stop these or other negative thoughts, feel free to drop me a line to learn more or send me a message to book a discussion about additional strategies and guidance tailored to your specific needs and I’ll get right back to you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hereford, Herefordshire, HR1
Written by Caroline Knight, Personal Development & Midlife Coach BSc (Hons.), MAC MANLP
Hereford, Herefordshire, HR1

Caroline is a Personal Development & Wellbeing Coach, and NLP Master practitioner. Caroline blends coaching approaches to support clients in their personal and professional lives to reduce anxieties, build confidence, resolve issues and remove blockages that hinder their wellbeing, for a happier, healthier more successful life.

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