Imagine having an interview for a new job tomorrow. Some people might consider what kinds of questions they will be asked in order to prepare, or imagine that the interview will go smoothly.
Some people will toss and turn throughout the night thinking of every worst-case scenario, no matter how outrageous they may be. If you prefer the latter, you are more susceptible to catastrophe.
Catastrophizing is a tendency to assume the worst will happen when imagining a future event, even if you have evidence that this is not the most likely outcome. People who like to feel in control (and are therefore tolerant of uncertainty) are more likely to catastrophize. This has been linked to anxiety, suggesting that frequent catastrophizing might be a contributor to certain mental health problems.
Catastrophizing comes from the belief that by imagining what might go wrong, we're better able to defend ourselves from physical and mental harm. However, this tendency is only useful if you're able to predict what will happen in a particular circumstance and how it will affect you.
We experience an emotional response to the story we are imagining, and we use this reaction to predict how we will feel in the future. However, this method of predicting the future is often incorrect because we aren't able to anticipate everything that might happen.
This may result in us generating the wrong emotional reaction for future situations in our heads.
However, our belief in what will happen in the future may have an influence on our behavior. For example, people who are optimistic (or even realistic) about the future are more likely to experiment with new things.
People who don't like what has gone well in new situations are less likely to try new things. And when they do try something new, they are more likely to notice what has gone wrong. This will be stored in their memories and will add to their reasons why they shouldn't try new things in the future.
Catastrophizing can result in excessive stress and anxiety, which may prevent you from doing the things you might enjoy or learn from.
If you're someone who likes to catastrophize when stressed or anxious, there are a few things you can do to help:
1. Make decisions in the morning.
When we're awake at night, we tend to visualize the future using our rational brain more effectively. Lack of sleep can also make us more susceptible to catastrophe.
When you're awake worrying about something, it's helpful to remember that you aren't thinking rationally. It can also be helpful to wait until the morning to make decisions.
2. Teach your inner critic to be more compassionate.
Our inner critic can be a contributing factor in catastrophizing, which may use harsh language that makes us angry.
Try imagining your inner critic as if you were looking through someone else's eyes. What language do you use when talking about someone else in the same situation? Is the language your inner critic uses helpful or justified?
When you're worried or stressed, the answer to these questions will often be no. Be mindful of the language your inner critic is using. If it's excessively harsh, try to change your style of speaking to yourself.
3. Make a better story.
Even if things have gone wrong in the past, this is unlikely to be the case in the future, despite what we may think of ourselves. Instead, try to think about ways in which this event might go smoothly, which might help you to lessen anxiety.
Another strategy is to create, not just one, but a large number of plausible scenarios for what might happen. This may help you remember that the stories you're telling yourself are just those stories. Choosing to focus on the ones that are positive might also help you to relax.
4. Be kind to yourself.
When it comes to your future, try to be more compassionate with yourself. Even for people who are extremely kind and understanding to others, this is quite difficult to achieve.
Compassion and empathy have evolved in order to enable us to be compassionate towards others. As such, compassion and empathy aren't designed to be used for you. But small things such as asking a friend what advice you might offer in your situation can help you to reconnect with your compassionate voice.
Practicing this method often can help you to see solutions where you would otherwise have focused on the problem.
Keeping ourselves safe from danger by planning for the worst-case scenarios serves a purpose. However, if you find that you're tempted to despise yourself for all of the things you're worried about may never happen, and, if they do, they will likely turn out better than you expected.
Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading.
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