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It's a Catastrophe...oh no it isn't...oh yes it is...isn't it?

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this.

- A. A. Milne

Catastrophe: A momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter ruin.

A violent, usually destructive, natural event

The final event of the dramatic action especially of a tragedy

The first use of catastrophe in English was in the 1500s and related to the last definition, a dramatic end in theatre. By the 1800s it was reserved for truly disastrous events such as fires, floods, epidemics and volcanic eruptions. Now we make use of it all the time, whenever anything goes wrong. The media frequently wield it to heighten the drama and make a story more enticing, more readable. We use is to make sure everyone including ourselves realise the gravity of the event.

Unfortunately we have embraced catastrophe a little too much. Catastrophising is one of the most common patterns of distorted thinking that we engage in.

Catastrophise: To think about the worst things that could possibly happen in a situation, or to consider a situation as much worse or more serious than it really is.

Many of us do this. A loved one is late therefore must have been involved in an accident. The boss wants to speak to us so we must be about to be fired. We think these things with very little evidence to support such a thought.

Worse still we often see this as a good practice. Preparing ourselves for the worst for many means that we will always be able to cope with whatever happens, we will always be ok.

Let’s examine this idea a little more. To prepare ourselves for the worst, we need to spend time there, thinking about what it is and what it means for us. We must project ourselves into our worst future and imagine what will happen; what we will think, feel and do in various, equally horrible scenarios.

When we do this, we trigger full blown fight-flight reactions within our body. Elevated levels of adrenaline and stress hormones prepare us to for the worst right now, even though it hasn’t happened yet and almost certainly will not.

Physiologically, persistently raised stress hormones cause a host of physical problems in our body, raised blood pressure, headaches, poor sleep and stomach problems.

Psychologically, the more time we spend in a fight-flight threat response, the more sensitive our brains become and the more readily the threat system triggers further fight-flight. This leads to anxiety disorders.

In addition, when we are on alert we may perceive things to be a threat when normally we would not and so our definition of what constitutes a catastrophe changes becoming broader and looser.

When catastrophising is our default we can also create disaster. As you know, our thoughts feelings and behaviours are intimately linked. When we move through scenarios thinking about the worst that can happen, triggering fight-flight reactions that make us feel uncomfortable and fearful, our corresponding behaviours can manifest the very catastrophe we are afraid of.

It seems clear then that catastrophising is unhelpful and is more likely to perpetuate anxiety and unhappiness.

What do we do instead?

We must encourage the rational, cerebral part of our brain (the neocortex) to step in, assess the situation and calm the threat response so it is proportionate not exaggerated. We must recognise the and be grateful for the lessons that come from any adverse event because doing that generates positive thoughts rather than negative.

Try This:

The next time you notice you are catastrophising, Press Pause and breathe. Engage in some deep diaphragmatic or belly breathing designed to switch off your fight-flight response.

Use the time that you might have spent imagining worse case scenarios to fully evaluate your thought:

Is it likely?

Is there any evidence it is true?

What is the evidence against it?

Is this thought process useful to me?

What normal explanations are there?

By the time you have considered all of these questions, you will be in control of your thoughts.

Now you have a choice, do you repeat your usual pattern and let the catastrophising continue or do you evolve and dismiss the initial thought as irrational and get on with your day?

If you are ready to take a step further in your journey, you may want to consider why catastrophising is a go to response for you. ‘How to Rise – A Complete Resilience Manual’ will help you do this.

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Nov 12, 2022

Succinct yet so powerful and life-changing! This may be where exercising emotional intelligence comes into play.

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