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Catastrophic thinking, when it hits us, becomes a downward spiral from which it is very difficult to get out. It is a cognitive bias through which we feed a series of irrational and negative beliefs that lead us to imagine the worst scenarios. It involves assuming that a disaster or catastrophe will occur, even if we have no reasonable reason for it.
Obviously, this type of thinking ends up generating great concern. If we continually think about the worst, we will be tense and anxious, in a state of permanent tension that will end up taking its toll on us both physically and psychologically. In the event that catastrophic thoughts joins pessimism, we will end up developing a learned helplessness that can lead directly to depression.
When optimistic bias gives way to catastrophism
The world can become a threatening place. Every day we expose ourselves to many dangers, from the possibility of having a traffic crash to suffering a domestic accident or even being hit by a piece of space debris or a meteorite. Those odds exist. But we don’t tend to pay too much attention to them because we are generally victims of optimistic bias.
Optimistic bias makes us believe that we are less likely to experience a negative event. Although it is a bias, it is not a negative thing since it allows us to live with a state of relative emotional balance in an environment that we would otherwise perceive as profoundly hostile.
In fact, in many cases optimistic bias protects our mental health. It has been found that people with depression and schizophrenia do not have an optimistic bias as strong as that experienced by psychologically stable people.
However, that optimistic bias can be affected by different factors. For example, the less control we feel we have over things that happen to us and our environment, the more likely that optimistic bias will disappear and give way to catastrophic thoughts. As we age, that optimistic bias also tends to fade. On the contrary, it is reinforced in highly ambiguous and uncertain contexts, where we have a tendency to prepare for the worst.
The problem begins when we do not leave behind that optimistic bias to enter the field of objectivity, but we imbue ourselves directly in the worst possible scenarios by feeding catastrophic thoughts.
Catastrophizing is a second arrow that we launch against us
Catastrophic thinking is an example of what in Buddhism is considered “the second arrow.” According to this philosophy, the first arrow refers to those unpleasant experiences that are part of our life, from inconveniences such as getting caught in a traffic jam or a broken light bulb, to deeper experiences, such as losing a job or a loved one.
Life doesn’t skimp on those first arrows. And many times we cannot avoid them. However, we can avoid the second arrows because we are the ones who shoot them. We experienced the unpleasant sensation that the first arrow produced, and instead of acknowledging it and trying to think about how we can improve things, we imbued ourselves with a stream of negative emotions and catastrophic thoughts about that first arrow.
In this way, it does not take long to add more discomfort and pain to the one that has already caused the first arrow. In other words, we make things worse on our own. Our reactions and thoughts disproportionate the situation adding an unnecessary dose of suffering, anxiety and fear.
The different types of catastrophic thoughts we tend to feed
1. Filtering, when we only see the negative
It is a distortion of reality in which we develop a kind of tunnel vision and take note of only the negative details, while magnifying them. We only see the negative elements, almost completely ignoring the positive, so that our vision of what is happening is tinted gray.
As a result of this negative and limited vision, we take what is happening out of context. Our thinking becomes a broken record that repeats itself continuously, getting worse. The end result is an exaggeration of all our fears, shortcomings and irritations, to the point that we can come to feel that everything is terrible, horrifying or that we will not be able to resist it.
How to disable it?
We are much stronger than we think. Actually, we can deal with many things. Therefore, sometimes to deal with this type of catastrophic thinking we only have to say to ourselves: “Do not exaggerate”, “You are seeing only the negative” or “I can face what happens”.
2. Overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions
When we overgeneralize we’re drawing a general conclusion from a single incident or taking into account only a limited part of the evidence and data that we have. If something bad happens to us on one occasion, catastrophic thinking will kick in and we will continually expect it to happen again.
In this case, we immediately jump to negative conclusions without realizing that many times situations are actually a concatenation of factors that rarely recur. This type of catastrophic thinking thinks in terms of “never,” “always,” “everyone,” or “none.”
How to disable it?
It is important to understand that having experienced a negative event doesn’t mean that it will happen again. We need to think objectively and analyze the real probabilities of occurrence based on the evidence we have. And to achieve this we must assume a psychological distance from what happens to us.
3. Personalization, believing that the all world is against us
Sometimes we believe that we are the center of the universe. And that egocentric vision can play tricks on us. We can believe that everything that happens has to do with us, that there is a world conspiracy with the sole objective of screwing up our lives and putting obstacles on our way. Thinking, in short, that only our light bulbs get broken, as if the others were unscathed.
Taking everything to the personal level can develop a catastrophic thinking that makes us see dangers everywhere, people willing to trip us up to the slightest mistake and imminent disasters that will affect us in unexpected ways.
How to disable it?
We need to understand that many things happen outside our will. Sometimes we are damaged collaterally, but the world is not conspiring against us. Seeing the pain and suffering of others, coming out of that self-centered attitude, will allow us to put everything in perspective.
4. Divination of thought
In order to relate to the others we must be able to intuit their emotions and, if possible, anticipate their intentions. However, sometimes we exaggerate and believe that we can guess their thoughts, which can create us illusions.
When we believe that we can guess the thoughts and intentions of the others, we will misinterpret a look, a gesture or a word, so that we will end up imagining the worst endings for that relationship. For example, we may conclude that someone holds a grudge against us, but we don’t bother to find out if it’s true.
How to disable it?
Asking. In social interactions, when there’s a doubt, it is better to ask. A simple “What did you mean?” it can eliminate the risk that we will jump to conclusions that are far from reality.
5. Emotional thinking
Negative emotions are often the wick that ignites catastrophic thinking. When something happens to us, we tend to react emotionally. We can feel angry, sad or frustrated when something doesn’t go according to our plans. But we should not make the mistake of confusing those emotions with reality.
When we think that, if we feel bad, the world is going bad, we are assuming that our emotions are reality and therefore can influence it. In this way we fall into the trap of imagining a terrifying future, if we are afraid, or a gray future if we are depressed. Our negative emotions become thoughts that end up shaping our reactions.
How to disable it?
Emotions influence our thinking. It is a fact. But we can understand that this is only one factor in the equation. We need to separate our emotional reactions from events. Thus we can understand that the fact that we are afraid does not necessarily mean that the world is a threatening place. We’re only seeing it like that in this moment.
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