I’ve always been guilty of catastrophising, thinking even the smallest challenges life throws at me will result in me or someone I love dying prematurely, or if I make a mistake at work I’ll be get fired or the tensions between South and North Korea will trigger WW3 and we’ll all die. Oh and did I mention the Millennium Bug triggering Armageddon?
But who can blame me? Since birth, I’ve had to confront numerous health-related issues, including a broken neck and several cancer scares. I’ve watched my middle brother fight for his life in intensive care whilst a yacht I was once on during a sailing holiday nearly capsized.
I also bet I’m not alone. Thanks to the Covid19 pandemic it’s inevitable that all of us will at some point experience negative thoughts such as catastrophising what the future will hold for us in the event the super clever scientists don’t come up with a vaccine any time soon. Some of us will also be fearful of the impact the crisis is having on job security and may well be thinking that if we’re laid-off we’ll get dumped and won’t be able to afford to feed ourselves.
As well as catastrophising there are a number of other negative thought patterns, which if left unchecked can result in stress and anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or self-hate.
Before discussing how to banish these negative thought patterns let’s go through a few more:
- Mental filtering – Only focussing on the negative stuff when presented with a mass of information. For example, thinking a short gap on your CV makes you a rubbish candidate, even though you have stellar academics and plenty of relevant work experience.
- Crystal ball gazing – Talking to ourselves as if we know what the future holds. For instance, there’s no point in going to that event because I don’t know the other guests, and nobody will talk to me.
- Mind reading – Assuming we know what others are thinking (usually about us!).
- All or Nothing / Black & White thinking – This way of thinking allows for no middle ground. For example, if a project didn’t go perfectly it was a ‘complete failure’. If a presentation didn’t go brilliantly it was rubbish.
- Overgeneralising and exaggerating the specific facts – For example, after burning some toast thinking you’re rubbish at cooking or a date stands you up and you decide that you’re hopeless in love.
- Compare and despair – Seeing the good and positive in others and getting upset when comparing ourselves negatively against them.
- Emotional reasoning – Interpreting negative feelings as evidence of the facts/truths about yourself or situation. For example, I feel guilty so I must be in the wrong or I feel anxious so I must be in danger.
- Critical self – Putting ourselves down, self-criticism, blaming ourselves for events or situations that aren’t totally our responsibility.
- Shoulds and musts – Putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure and setting unrealistic expectations by thinking or saying: “I should (or “I shouldn’t”) or “I must”.
- Judgements – Making evaluations or judgements about events, ourselves, others or the world instead of describing what we actually see and have evidence for.
To help you challenge a negative thought it is worth questioning how valid/true/rational it is. You can do this by asking yourself some of the following questions, which should offer an alternative perspective.
- Am I thinking in one of the unhelpful patterns listed above?
- Is this unhelpful thought a fact? What evidence do I have to support this? What is the evidence against it?
- Do I have enough information to reach this conclusion? And has this information been fact checked?
- Am I asking myself unanswerable questions such as “Why me”?
- Am I being fair to myself?
- Am I trying to predict the future? If so, how likely is it that my prediction will happen. If it does happen, what would help me to manage the situation?
- What are the alternative interpretations of the situation?
- What are the likely consequences of this situation?
- If a friend was struggling with this, what would I say to them?
- How is this way of thinking helping me to manage the situation in question?
- What similar situations from the past will help me to think in an alternative and more helpful way?
Once you’ve evaluated and challenged your thoughts and substituted them with more positive, or at the very least more rational and objective, ones you’ll hopefully feel some emotional relief. But this won’t happen overnight and will need to be learned and practised. So, please try to stick with it.