Stop Your Catastrophic Thinking in 3 Steps

Have you found yourself worrying about the health of those you love? How to pay the bills with a family member’s loss of income? Or what your PCS will look like? When things we care about are on the line and everything is unclear, we are more likely to experience “catastrophic thinking.” And since there are no known benefits to catastrophizing, you might want to learn how to put your experiences into perspective.

What’s catastrophic thinking?

  • Irrational, worst-case thoughts that lead to high levels of anxiety.
  • Thinking about “what-ifs” that may not be realistic (e.g., “What if I I’m not able to get to my gym… then I fail the ACFT because I’m not ready… this could end my military career…”.

What’s so wrong about catastrophizing?

  • Catastrophic thinking makes you a less effective problem solver.
  • - A strong fight-or-flight response activates a lot of great resources in your body, but the cortisol release inhibits your ability to think critically and creatively.
    - Catastrophic thoughts can also cause you to plan for a worst-case scenario that will likely never happen, or waste critical energy focusing on areas that are out of your control.

Even though it can feel like you can’t stop the worrying, there are things you can do to be more productive with your thinking, like using positive emotions as outlined by Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory.

To stop catastrophizing, follow these steps:

  1. Notice when catastrophic thoughts are hijacking your attention or driving feelings of worry, stress, or anxiety.
  2. Recognize that you won’t be at your best when you’re under stress and have a pre-planned positive emotion strategy ready to get you back on track. For example, calling a loved one, watching some funny videos or doing a deep breathing exercise. Even noticing the unrealistic nature of your thoughts, can bring up feelings of amusement or hope.
  3. Once you’re thinking more clearly and feeling less anxious, you can figure out how to address the problem. You may even surprise yourself with a novel, creative solution!


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