My friend’s husband was recently late coming home from work.
Instead of assuming that he was stuck in traffic (which he was), she immediately wondered if he had died in a car accident or was having an affair.
She doesn’t have these types of catastrophic thoughts all the time, but she has them on occasion—and they cause her a fair amount of anxiety.
She’s not sure how to make these kinds of thoughts stop.
So I called Ron Breazeale, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Maine, who has helped catastrophic thinkers throughout his career. He gave me some simple and creative ways to break this bad habit.
TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR THOUGHTS
The next time you have a catastrophic thought, stop yourself in that moment and consider following these tips from Dr. Breazeale…
1. Identify your thought as “catastrophic.” Recognize that what you’re thinking about is extremely unlikely to happen—think seriously about the realistic odds. Your partner getting run over by an 18-wheeler or cheating on you in a hotel room with a colleague on his way home from work, for example, are possible explanations for tardiness, but they aren’t likely explanations.
2. Think about the more likely explanations. Force yourself to come up with other potential scenarios—ones that are much more likely to happen in real life. With the above example, consider that your partner is stuck in traffic…on a long line at a gas station…stopping at a drugstore for some razor blades…picking up dry cleaning, etc. Then tell yourself that chances are one of these “more likely” scenarios is the real reason he’s late. The more that you consciously force yourself to do this, the more likely you are to start thinking rationally automatically when you’re stressed.
3. Take action (when possible). In certain cases, there’s an easy way to disprove your catastrophic thought and confirm a “more likely” reason for the problem at hand—for example, you could simply call your tardy husband on his cell phone to find out what’s causing the delay, and that might help you relax. But here’s an important part of this step: Make only one call. If you call him and he doesn’t pick up, and that is going to prompt you to call him 10 more times or make calls to 10 other places (his office, the gas station, the drugstore, the dry cleaners, etc)…then skip this step altogether, because it’ll only inflate your worries.
4. Dig deeper. Ask yourself if your partner’s tardiness, for instance, is what you’re really worried about. Your anxiety might be manifesting itself as stress about your partner, but it actually may be stemming from a separate problem altogether. For example, maybe you’re seriously scared because you’re struggling financially…or maybe you’re panicked about a serious health diagnosis…or maybe you’re not performing well at work. If you figure out the root problem and then take steps to solve that problem, you might find that your catastrophic thinking dissipates.
GET EXTRA HELP, IF NEEDED
If the tips from Dr. Breazeale above don’t curtail your catastrophic thinking and it’s interfering with your life in a serious way—perhaps it keeps you from sleeping or hurts your relationships, for example—then it’s time to seek help from a psychologist who uses cognitive behavioral therapy. Find one near you by checking the American Psychological Association, said Dr. Breazeale, and ask him or her, “Can you help me with catastrophic thinking?”