We live in intensely activating times. From fires on the west coast to political unrest, from the global pandemic of Covid-19 to the US election – we are all stirred up! We have several natural responses to a higher level of threat or danger. We try to control the situation (perfectionism), we get drunk or stoned (alcohol sales up 30%), we shop, we sleep or can’t sleep as we are triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn. Catastrophic thinking is part of our response to threat and it can really take over our mind and our life.
What is happening right now in the space your body is occupying? There are sense perceptions, of the air or clothes on your skin, sounds, wetness in your mouth and the movement of your body with your breath. Are you holding your breath or is it smooth and continuous? Notice the energy, sensations and feelings too. Do you have a heavy pressure in your chest or an anxious feeling in your gut? Do you feel antsy and ready to spring into action or are you fairly relaxed right now?
Catastrophic thinking is fear based and relates to the future. When you find yourself caught entertaining worst-case scenarios, here is what you can do.
Step one: Awareness
Through mindfulness, we are aware sooner what is happening in our thoughts and body. We notice the inner critic is shaming us or that we are engaged in catastrophic thinking. We know these patterns arise from fear in our past and that they are not helpful. We decide to stop.
Step two: Reclaim Your Power
In the long term, we can heal the fear and past trauma that drives catastrophic thinking. In this moment, we can also interfere with its free reign in our mind. Compulsive thinking has such a strong momentum, and it has been happening for so long, that we don’t realize we can say no.
We can’t stop a thought from appearing. It is a bit like ignoring a bully. We can stop paying attention to these thoughts and they lose their juice.
Step Three: Say No
No! This is a catastrophic thought. It alarms my nervous system. It’s not true and it’s not helpful.
Firmly push one hand out in front of you body, palm forward. No.
Put a period on the end of the sentence. I am not entertaining this. No.
Step Four: Feel the Energy
We don’t have to do this every time a catastrophic thought comes into your mind. Some days you literally wouldn’t have time for anything else! When you do have time, take a few moments and feel into the energy. Where is it in your body? Where does it start and end? Is it hot or cold? Moving or still? Do you have an image of it? Does it have a color?
Step Five: Why Are You Here?
Is this energy here to hurt you? What is your felt sense of that? If not, why is it here?
Catastrophic thinking and the energy of that in your body grew out of fear and your system wanting to protect you. We have great intentions and a terrible result. Now that we are adults, we have different capacities than when we were children.
See and recognize this energy is here to protect you and help you figure out how to keep safe. Can you soften around that? Welcome the intention, even as you say no to the thoughts.
Step Six: Halt the Forward Momentum
Relax the whole back of your body to stop the forward momentum of future thinking.
Notice the back of your head, back of your ears and hinges of your jaw.
Let the back of your neck and shoulders soften as well as the muscles of your upper back. We brace ourselves through this area and harden up to shield us from danger. This isn’t necessary right now. Let it soften.
Notice the back of your shoulders and the back of your arms. Let your arms come to rest. You don’t need them to be active right now.
Bring your attention through your upper back to your mid back between the shoulder blades then to your lower back. Notice your belly settles back toward your spine as you exhale.
Let the back of your hips, thighs, calves and feet relax. Let your legs rest.
Bring your attention back to the whole of your body head to toes. Settle through the back body and rest.
Step Seven: Release the Energy
Soften your belly and allow your breath to become smooth and continuous.
Shake the Tree or Throw it Down.
Catastrophic thinking causes a cascade of stress responses in our system. Use these tools to release it out of your body.
These Emergency Practices help reset your nervous system.
Step Eight: I Need a Plan
Is there a real issue here that you need to deal with? The truth is we don’t know what will happen. Our mind projects worst-case scenarios and that activates hyper vigilance in our nervous system.
Often a minimal plan can help reassure our mind that we have it covered.
Several years ago I was dreading an upcoming visit that I knew would be highly charged. I started catastrophizing. What would happen? Would I go into freeze and not know what to say? Would she be angry and yell? Would I not be able to cope? My mind presented one scenario after another. I was compulsively entertaining worst-case scenarios that drove more fear and I was caught in a loop. I recognized that I would be a wreck by the time the visit happened.
I decided on a simple plan. I would work with staying grounded in my body and with relaxed breathing as I drove to her place. When I got there, I would keep the keys to the car in my pocket. If it was too much, I would say “I need to leave”, get in the car and drive away.
Every time a catastrophic thought would come up, I would say “I have a plan. I’m good.” It worked.
Anxiety might drive us to thinking we need to preplan a detailed response to every possible scenario. We don’t! We need to relax and stay present, then we’ll know what to do in the moment. We can trust ourselves.
Step Nine: Walk It Through
If something has you really stressed, walk it through ahead of time. Stay grounded and mindful that you are working with this to see and release the triggers before it happens.
You are dreading an important meeting at work. Bring up a visual for each of the steps.
Walking down the hallway toward the meeting room
Seeing everyone sitting around the table
In the past, one colleague ridiculed you in the meeting. Bring up their face.
At each stage, bring up the visual and feel the response in your body. Stay grounded in your body and breath. Look at the image and do Tapping, Tracing or Focus Perspective until the image releases its intensity. Come back to the energy in your body and work with it using the tools of Location and Mining.
Take your time. Work through each trigger until it loses its intensity. Stay grounded in your body and breath so you don’t engage in catastrophic thinking.
Now visualize yourself moving along the hallway toward the meeting. You’re not looking forward to it but you’re relaxed and prepared. Your body language is confident. Use all of your senses to experience this.
You enter the room early so you can choose a seat facing your boss and where you don’t have to look at the colleague who triggers you. See yourself sitting calming, hands lightly clasped in your lap, breathing easily as you greet other people coming in.
Make a commitment to stay present with your body and breath. Hold your own hand to comfort yourself with your warmth. Use longer sentences when you’re speaking. When you’re listening, breathe out slowly at least six seconds. This helps signals your system that you’re safe. Relax your shoulders and settle back into the support of your chair.
We visualize the triggers so we can know what they are and release them ahead of time. We visualize moving confidently through the experience to reassure ourselves.
Step Ten: In This Moment I am Safe
I feel scared. I’m worried about what might happen. I might fall apart. It could be a disaster. I hate not knowing.
These are normal responses. Our brain filters thousands of pieces of information every day. It prefers predictable situations because it already knows whether they are safe. Unfamiliar situations or ones where we’ve been hurt in the past trigger fear. This is normal.
Right now in this moment you are safe. You can do this. Work with calming your nervous system through breathing and relaxing, and also by challenging catastrophic thoughts. Cultivate patience and kindness for yourself. Let your body help.