For when you’re 100% convinced all hope is lost forever.
If you’re obsessing about worst case scenarios and feeling convinced that all hope is lost, you might be doing some catastrophic thinking.
Catastrophic thinking is ruminating on absolute worst-case scenarios that are not necessarily rational or likely to happen, like being convinced that flying across the country means certain death in a plane crash or that the pain in your side is definitely terminal cancer.
Of course your plane could crash and it could be terminal cancer. But you don’t know that now, and thinking and acting as if you do — “my life is over; after all I’m about to die!” — leads to more anxiety, panic, and sometimes total paralysis about what to do next, California-based clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD, tells BuzzFeed Health.
Basically, you feel like shit's about go down — in your life or in the world — and it's so jarring that your usual coping mechanisms don't work, leaving you unable to process whatever happened or even think rationally about what to do next.
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The thing about catastrophic thinking is that you don’t even know you’re doing it.
And that’s because whatever you’re imagining feels totally real to you; you really do think and believe that these worst-case scenarios are imminent and inescapable. Whatever nightmarish hellscape you're conjuring up feels totally in sync with your reality.
“Catastrophic thinking flips a switch where there’s no silver lining,” says Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. You feel such abject and endless despair that you lose hope of anything ever getting better. And what's worse: you feel like there's no point in taking action or taking care of yourself, which can land you in this self-fulfilling prophecy where your lack of action actually makes the situation — and your anxiety — worse.
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Fortunately, there are ways to break out of this doomsday thought pattern.
Reversing catastrophic thinking isn’t about telling yourself that nothing that bad could possibly happen, because of course the worst case scenario could actually happen.
The goal is to intervene in your thinking so that this endless obsessing doesn't stop you from living your life — or actually make it worse. This mostly has to do with checking yourself and testing your reality. Here's how to do that:
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First, you have to learn to recognize when you’re doing it.
It's a little meta, but you basically have to think about your thoughts. Are your thoughts and feelings basically all about despair and hopelessness right now? Are you having lots of all-or-nothing thoughts (like: if x happens, my life will literally be over)? If you can't imagine a reality in which things are bad — or even really bad — but it's not the end of the world, that's a clue that you're thinking catastrophically.
Another way to check yourself is to observe the way you’ve been talking or posting on social media. “Talk is reflective of the way we think,” says Bonior. So be on the lookout for themes of helplessness in your speech, like: “it’s all over,” “what’s the use,” “there’s no point,” etc.
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