Catastrophising: An unhealthy natural human reaction

Meditation is a powerful method to stop the barrage of thoughts spinning in our minds

Many of us may have succumbed to catastrophising in the past 12 months and at some stage have thought the worst. With all that has been happening in our world, in our families and in our homes, we have been facing extreme difficulties we’ve never witnessed before. It makes sense that we may battle a thought and allow it take over, over inflating its sense of purpose and leaving ourselves aching by our actions. But this behaviour is unhelpful and damaging and immobilising.

It’s a good thing our minds are wonderfully protective of us, but we are not always conscious of this. In fact, we often fight it. On the one hand, we have the part of our brain, the amygdala, which steps up to protect us from trouble. Or so it thinks. It encourages us to fight (sometimes unnecessarily) or run away (also sometimes unnecessarily) and is unduly reactionary in nature.

On the other hand, we have the rational part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, attempting to explain the situation and refocus our frame of mind, lowering the great risk we assume is there. Our minds, however, have a funny way of conflicting with itself and we lose control of the thoughts ballooning in our heads. The amygdala shouts louder than the rational side of our brain and can often win unless we manage to quieten it down. Which isn’t always easy and takes practise to manage.

Our ability to over exaggerate our situation is not so straightforward, and while we have had justifiable reasons to react in a heightened manner in recent months, managing our expectations, fears and worries is something we need to remind ourselves to do.

"Catastrophising is a natural human reaction albeit unhealthy," says Mary McHugh, founder of the Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy Service. As a psychotherapist, McHugh understands that the body is incredibly wise but we have to listen to it. "Catastrophising is concluding without any evidence to back it up, or as the saying goes 'making a mountain out of a mole hill'. It's a fear-based distortion of our thinking, which can be very debilitating for us and for those around us. In our modern world we have many fears and this can have [a] major impact on our functioning."

Chronic illness

Overthinking, exaggerating and believing the worst is happening or will happen can lead to chronic illness such as fatigue, severe anxiety, depression and often physical pain. “It’s easy to see why there would be fatigue,” says McHugh. “Being constantly on guard for the worst-case scenario will tire you out. Being on edge all the time means there is no way you can relax and when we are not relaxed it leads to anxiety, increased heart rate and sweaty palms.

“Cortisol and adrenaline will keep pumping to help with the alarm but that is only meant for short bursts, and when you are prone to catastrophising the tank runs dry and a side effect is depression. The energy is drained from the system and it is the body screaming for you to take notice of it and change the behaviour which is happening but not working. Physical pain happens because when we are on alert we are clenching our fists, bottoms, jaws and whatever else we can. This leads to flow being restricted in the cells from all the holding on and the inability to let go. Over time this can have chronic negative physical results.”

While catastrophising can come from learned behaviour that becomes familiar to us, such as an anxious parent, it can also be triggered by a traumatic event. Overcoming the norms of our thought patterns takes a great deal of focus and energy, and often guidance. Knowing how to work through negative thoughts, catastrophising and anxiety is not as simple as flicking a switch.

“Science has proven we can change this catastrophising behaviour,” says McHugh. “Changing, however, is not easy and takes time, patience and practise. This is where mindfulness comes in, meditation and also cognitive behavioural therapy with further and deeper psychotherapeutic work to allow the body to work through the trauma and/or the imprinting of this behaviour.”

Meditation and mindfulness are powerful methods to stop the barrage of thoughts spinning in our minds. It may seem as though our behaviour is rational, expected and applicable but when our minds free flow leaving us in an unmanageable anxious state, we must listen to our minds and bodies and change our behaviour before it affects us long-term.

“If you can look at the behaviour of catastrophising as a muscle,” says McHugh, “it is ripped, taut, firm and strong and the behaviour attempting to avoid catastrophising is limp and weak. This is what hard-wiring really means. In order to change this we have to weaken the muscle of catastrophising and strengthen the muscle of logic and clear-thinking. We have to engage the cortex which is the clear-thinking part of the brain.

“An easy way to do this is by becoming present. When we are present this automatically allows the body to begin to relax and when we relax we see things much clearer. This takes practise but it can be done and the results are so freeing on so many levels for any of us struggling with catastrophising and also for our family and social network. Our physical wellbeing affects our emotional wellbeing and vice versa. No one can change any of this, only you. People can support you but you need to find your great power within yourself to be the change.”

Tips to break a catastrophising cycle

1) Recognise and accept unpleasant things happen. Life is not a linear line with happy endings but rather made of moments with good and bad times.
2) Acknowledge life is full of challenges that will make things difficult at times. How we react to those challenges will determine how we manage and cope.
3) Stop thinking. The more we attempt to evaluate a situation without appropriate information the more we lead ourselves in the wrong direction.
4) Be kind to yourself. As we think the worst, we lean into a negative cycle of thinking. Pausing, breathing and finding our own inner strength will direct us on to a less destructive path.
5) Listen to your rational brain. Our mind has the ability to refocus our thoughts if only we would listen to it. It's a quiet voice in a loud world but worth tuning into.
6) Rest. We tend to think the worst of a situation when we are emotionally and physically tired. Unable to think properly will send our thought patterns spiralling.