How to Put a Stop to Catastrophic Thinking

Basho by Kinkoku Yokoi (1761-1832)

By Toni Bernhard J.D.

Learn to skillfully respond to the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing.

Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. The phrase refers to our irrational and exaggerated thoughts: thoughts that have no basis in fact, but which we believe anyway. These distorted thoughts then become the breeding ground for stressful emotions. The result is anxiety and the undermining of our ability to feel good about life or ourselves. In September 2014, I wrote an post entitled “How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety.” You might want to have a look at it. One of those distortions is called catastrophizing and it is the subject of this post.

Catastrophizing is also called magnifying. This is a good way to think of it, because it emphasizes how we often magnify things way out of proportion, dreaming up nightmare scenarios that we believe without question.

The first and second arrows

Catastrophizing is an example of thoughts (and the emotions they give rise to) that the Buddha called the “second arrow.” The first arrow refers to those familiar, unpleasant experiences that are an inevitable part of everyday life, from the mundane (a light bulb that burns out when we flip on the switch) to more profound unpleasant experiences (waking up with a flare in a chronic pain condition). We could each make a list of our own “first arrow” experiences. Some days we’re bombarded with them, again from the relatively minor (a computer crash) to the major (the loss of a job… or a friend). Life is hard enough just coping with the first arrow, that’s for sure.

The second arrow is an unnecessary one. Here’s how it happens. We experience the unpleasantness of the first arrow, but instead of simply acknowledging its presence and, if possible, trying to make things better (e.g., change the light bulb, take a warm shower to try and ease our physical pain), we engage in a stream of stressful thoughts and emotions about that unpleasant “first arrow” experience. Although the Buddha didn’t use the word catastrophize, it’s an example of how we shoot ourselves with a second arrow by mocking up worst-case scenarios instead of just taking care of the business at hand. In other words, we make things worse for ourselves.

It’s as if we’re looking at an unpleasant experience through binoculars, and so it appears way out of proportion to us. I used a light bulb burning out as an example, because it’s a trivial experience. And yet, when it’s happened to you, how often do you say without irritation: “Oh, well, the light bulb burned out; no big deal, I’ll just change it”?

If you’re like me, when you encounter an unpleasant experience, you tend to add a negative reaction, which may not always rise to the level of catastrophizing, but can if it takes on this type of form: “Why do light bulbs always burn out on me? The new one will probably burn out in a few days — on me again.” It’s this second arrow, magnifying an unpleasant experience and making it into a catastrophe, that keeps us from feeling at peace with our lives. After all, if we changed the light bulb mindfully — paying careful attention as we get a new bulb, unscrew the old bulb, screw in the new one, and perhaps even take a moment to reflect on the wonders of electricity — we might even enjoy the experience.

And what about that “first arrow” unpleasant experience of waking up with a flare in our chronic pain levels? Instead of keeping calm and waiting to see if the pain subsides as the morning wears on, there’s a tendency to catastrophize by convincing ourselves that this is our new normal. We say to ourselves: “This pain will never go away; I’ll be miserable the rest of my life.” That’s the experience of the second arrow and, not surprisingly, it tends to be a source of stress and anxiety.

Through habits we’ve developed over our lifetimes, we seem to be quite adept at making ourselves miserable by magnifying our disappointments and frustrations until they seem like catastrophes. Another simple example. I’ve been teaching myself some new embroidery stitches. A few months ago, I was embroidering an underwater scene and wanted to use a “cretan stitch” to make a fish. But I couldn’t do it. Every fish I tried looked awful. Instead of feeling compassion for how hard this was proving to be, I started spinning irrational stories about my attempts: “I’ll never figure out this stitch. I might as well throw the whole piece away.” Catastrophizing.

How to stop the tendency to catastrophize

To reverse the tendency to catastrophize, put your experience into perspective. Start by reminding yourself that unpleasant experiences — not having things go as you want — are an inevitable part of life. Then reframe your thoughts regarding whatever unpleasant experience is threatening to set off that second arrow. Sticking with my examples, remind yourself that everyone has to change light bulbs sometimes; it’s no big deal. Remind yourself that just because you’re in pain this morning doesn’t mean you’ll be in pain every morning. Everything changes, including pain levels. Remind yourself that some embroidery stitches are hard to learn, and besides, an underwater scene doesn’t have to have a fish in it anyway — put in a crab.

In other words, put a stop to this type of distorted thinking by first becoming aware that you’re engaged in it, and then countering that thinking by adopting a reasonable perspective on what’s going on. Sometimes I even say to myself: “Stop! You’re going down that catastrophizing road again, and it’s only going to make an unpleasant situation worse.” Gently saying, “Stop!” like this can interrupt your tendency to start spinning those “second arrow” worst-case scenarios.

I’m not saying this will always be easy. You may have a lifelong habit of blowing things out of proportion and assuming the worst, often about yourself. The good news is that habits can change, and the first step is to become aware of how you’re making life more difficult for yourself by magnifying unpleasant experiences and blowing them out of proportion.

I recommend that you start small — maybe with that light bulb or something you’ve spilled. The better you get at keeping calm and not going straight to exaggerating and catastrophizing over minor unpleasant experiences (“I’m always spilling things and always will”), the easier it will be to maintain your peace of mind when you’re struck by harsher first arrows.

Shutterstock Basho by Kinkoku Yokoi (1761-1832)

© 2017 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. You might also find these helpful: “You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts” and “What Type of Thinker Are You?

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at the University of California, Davis. She’s the author of How to Be SickHow to Wake Up, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness.

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