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Breaking free from catastrophic thinking: 5 steps to retrain your brain

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Do you find yourself sometimes caught in a web of irrational thoughts that can quickly start to spiral into worst-case scenarios?

You might have started experiencing stomach pains that you haven't had before. Pretty soon you're imagining receiving a cancer diagnosis, or maybe you weren't successful in a job selection process and you start thinking, 'What if I never find another job?' 'What will I do if I can't pay my mortgage?'

While these outcomes could be real situations and serious challenges to face, jumping immediately to the worst case scenario and allowing that line of thinking to expand quickly is not helpful for us, physically, emotionally or mentally.

Catastrophic thinking is one example of what experts refer to as our cognitive distortions, which we all experience at one time or another, and this type of thinking can quickly overwhelm us, leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety.

The good news is that our minds are powerful and we have the capacity to break free from this cycle. In this blog, we explore some signs of irrational or catastrophizing thoughts and five practical steps you can take to begin to retrain your brain in these challenging situations.

Recognizing Irrational or Catastrophizing Thoughts The first step in addressing these kinds of thoughts and retraining our minds is to identify these thoughts when they arise. These thoughts tend to be exaggerated and distorted, blowing situations out of proportion and assuming the worst possible outcome.

Here are a few signs that you may be experiencing such thoughts:

  1. Magnification or Minimization: You either exaggerate the negative aspects of a situation or downplay the positive aspects.

  2. "What if" Scenarios: You constantly imagine and worry about future events, and imagine outcomes that might not be likely.

  3. Jumping to Conclusions: You assume the worst-case scenario without considering alternative explanations.

  4. Emotional Overload: Catastrophic thoughts often come with intense emotions like fear, panic, or despair.

  5. All-or-Nothing Thinking: You see situations in black and white, with no middle ground.

Retraining Your Brain: 5 Steps to help us break free

Step 1: Awareness and Mindfulness

Begin by cultivating awareness of your thought patterns. Catch yourself when you notice words like 'No one' 'Everyone 'Nothing' 'Everything' 'Never' creeping into your self-talk. 'I've failed this exam. I'll never get the chance to follow my dream.'

Mindfulness practices such as meditation or deep breathing exercises can help you observe your thoughts without judgment. This awareness will enable you to catch irrational thoughts as they arise.

Step 2: Question Your Thoughts

Challenge your catastrophic thoughts by asking yourself critical questions. Are your assumptions based on facts or mere speculation? Is there any evidence to support your worst-case scenario? Encourage yourself to think rationally and objectively, considering alternative perspectives.

Step 3: Reframe and Replace

Once you've identified irrational thoughts, you can begin to reframe them into more realistic and balanced statements. Replace catastrophic predictions with more rational and constructive ones. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, "I'll never find a job," reframe it as, "Job hunting can be challenging, but I have valuable skills and experiences that will increase my chances."

Step 4: Seek Support

Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist for support. Discussing your fears and concerns and venting with someone you trust can help you let your emotions out and potentially see the situation from a fresh perspective and help you challenge irrational thoughts. Remember, you don't have to face these thoughts alone.

Step 5: Practise Self-Compassion

Be kind and gentle with yourself. Catastrophic thinking patterns can impact us all and they can be deeply ingrained. It takes time and effort to retrain our brains. Celebrate small victories and practise self-care to nurture your emotional well-being.

Treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would offer to a close friend.

Recognizing and addressing irrational or catastrophizing thoughts is crucial for maintaining a healthy mindset, and remember, change takes time and practice, so be patient with yourself.

With practice and perseverance, we can all develop a more rational and balanced perspective, leading to reduced stress, improved decision-making, and a greater sense of inner peace.

Let's all embrace the power within us to overcome the grip of irrational thoughts and continue on our journey towards more calm and peace.

Until next time,

The PLS team



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