• Anxious thoughts can run away with us and before you know it you're catastrophising about the worst possible outcome

  • Richard Templar offers 9 tips to help you regain control over unhelpful thoughts

  • If you need support with anxiety, you can find a therapist here

Catastrophising is when you get stuck in a pattern of jumping to the worst conclusion about a situation, and then becoming excessively anxious about it. You might be prone to thinking every unidentified ache or pain is cancer, or that any tiny mistake at work could get you fired, or every time any of your family are five minutes late home they must have had a terrible accident. Your thoughts race, you overthink everything, you become highly distressed – and then your headache clears up, or no one notices your mistake, or your partner walks in through the door.

By that time, however, you’re feeling exhausted. It’s no wonder that a tendency to catastrophise is associated with higher-than-average levels of anxiety and depression, among other things. Some of us do this occasionally, and for some of us it becomes a common thought pattern. It’s not a recognised mental health condition on its own, but it’s well-known that it often goes along with stress, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other conditions such as OCD or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). 

Whether you experience it occasionally or frequently, you need to find ways to exercise control over your thoughts to stop them running wild. So here are some strategies to help you cope.

1. Recognise what you are doing

This is absolutely the first step. Until you do it, you won’t see the need to deploy any of your other techniques. So, when your anxiety levels start to rise, tell yourself "I’m catastrophising" – say it out loud if that helps – and recognise that you need to take action.

2. Find a sense of perspective

The trouble with catastrophising is that we can easily lose our sense of risk. We think the worst outcome is way more likely than it really is. So try to get the risk in proportion. How often is someone late home? And how many of those times are due to some dreadful accident? Or how many headaches actually turn out to be brain tumours? Remind yourself how tiny the risk really is.

3. Replace the worst possible scenario

In your mind you’re already at the hospital, or in the MRI scanner, or sitting in front of a doctor as they tell you that you have only weeks to live... These thoughts aren’t helpful, and stopping unhelpful thoughts is much easier when you have something to replace them with. So deliberately start imagining the best-case scenario instead. Visualise the doctor telling you there’s nothing on the scan and the relief you’re going to feel.

4. Slow your brain down

One of the symptoms of catastrophising is that your mind races. So remind yourself to slow it down. One way to do this is to write things down – you must slow your thinking down to do this. For example, you could list your fears and then mark each one out of 10 for how likely it really is to happen.

5. Keep a log

Start making a note of your anxieties when you catch yourself catastrophising. Then record by each one the actual outcome (it was only a headache, the mistake turned out not to matter). Over time looking at this will help you to recognise that things aren’t generally as bad as they look. And look at it when you catch yourself in full flow too, to help with that sense of perspective.

6. What would you say to a friend?

One of the strategies that can help is what’s known as ‘reframing’ which is basically just another term for looking at things from another perspective. If your friend told you that they made a mistake at work and were terrified the boss would find out, you’d calm them down and get them to see things in proportion. So, imagine your friend has your current anxiety, and think what you’d say to them in the same situation.

7. Distract yourself

Sometimes it helps just to break the thought pattern. You might be able to do this if you practise mindfulness, or go for a walk, or call a friend. It might take time to learn which strategy works for you, but it’s well worth experimenting. A break that enables you to return to a more measured perspective can be very helpful, and maybe it will occupy the time until your partner gets home, or your symptoms ease, or the mistake can be rectified.

8. Look back on yourself

Think about how this will look in a week’s time – or a month or a year. It’s another reframing technique, and it helps you find perspective. You might realise that the catastrophe will resolve one way or another in the next hour or two, which at least makes it easier to hold on. Or maybe you’ll realise that losing your job wouldn’t be the end of the world.

9. Watch your vocabulary

Words have a lot of power over us, and over our feelings. If you tell yourself you’re in a crisis, you’ll feel a lot more anxious than if you tell yourself this is a glitch. So, think about the words you use in your head to describe your situation or your symptoms, and anything you’re imagining might transpire.

Practise these strategies any time things start to get bad, because the more your brain gets used to running on these lines – rather than the scary catastrophising ones – the easier it becomes. So don’t wait for a really bad bout before you take action. Make it a normal part of your process whenever you encounter anxious thoughts, so you can slip into a healthier frame of mind more readily when you most need it.

Richard Templar is the author of the global best-selling “The Rules of… ” series.

Further reading

Challenge your thoughts: are they helpful?

Try this 1-minute grounding activity for a stress-free start to your day

How to change how you think about the hard times

As a counsellor, here are 4 anxiety techniques that have helped me

9 strategies to boost your confidence