Catastrophic thinking

In our day-to-day lives, we all keep an eye out for things that may harm us. This assessment of the world around us for danger is essential for one’s “survival” and is built into our brains. Unfortunately, this system for assessing dangers can work in an exaggerated way in some people, leading to unhelpful thinking patterns happening in their minds. I will now explain one such unhelpful thinking pattern which psychologists call “catastrophic thinking”.

Let me use an example to explain “catastrophic thinking”. Imagine that a person, who we will call Susan, has a teenage daughter and that she is fifteen minutes beyond the time she usually arrives home from school. While many parents will start to be concerned when their child is late returning from school, Susan, because of her catastrophic thinking, straight away thinks of only the worst possible outcome. In this case, Susan immediately thinks, “Oh no, my daughter must have met with a road traffic accident and may be bleeding to death at this very moment.” whereas, a parent without such thinking may think instead, “Maybe there is very heavy traffic on the roads, and the school bus may have got held up.”

In fact, with catastrophic thinking, the person may add further layers of “worst outcome” scenarios. Continuing from the example I just gave, the further added scenarios may go like this, “And with the loss of my daughter, I would become extremely depressed, making me lose my partner and job. I will end up being homeless and sleeping on the street”. With such a catastrophic imagination, the person will undergo immense unnecessary stress, probably further compromising the person’s ability to think rationally. And all this stress happens without the person having any idea of what actually has happened.

This is not to say that one should not be concerned about one’s children. Rather, it’s about having a measured level of concern. In the example, perhaps instead of imagining the worst, a better approach would have been to say look up online to see for traffic reports in the area etc.    

A common theme that you will see when I discuss unhelpful thinking patterns is that it often has to do with one not “seeing things the way they really are”. What I mean is that our minds often “imagine” an outcome and then treat that imagination as being true. i.e. it confuses imagination and truth. In the example given before, yes there was a reason for the person to be concerned that his or her daughter was late, but then the thinking became unhelpful when the person’s mind imagined that an accident must have happened, when in reality, at that point there was no evidence that anything bad had happened. An important part of happy thinking is about developing the ability to see things the way they are, rather than having an imaginary view. In the “tools” section of this website I will give you some techniques to help you do this.

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