- Patricia Riddell
Imagine you have a job interview tomorrow. Some people may think about what kind of questions to ask to get ready. For others, the mere thought of an interview will cause them to roll in bed and think of all possible worst-case scenarios — no matter how critical they may be.
If you have a tendency to act this way, then you are prone to catastrophizing.
Disaster is a tendency to assume the worst will happen when imagining a future situation – even if you have evidence that this is not the most likely outcome.
People who like to feel in control (and therefore do not tolerate uncertainty) are more likely to feel that way. This has been linked to anxiety – suggesting that frequent catastrophe may be a factor in the development of some mental health problems.
Disaster comes from the belief that by imagining what could go wrong, we are better able to protect ourselves from harm – both physical and mental. However, this trend is only useful if you are able to correctly predict what will happen in a particular situation and how you will feel.
When we imagine future events, we feel an emotional reaction to the story we are creating, and we use that response to determine how we will feel in the future. But this method of predicting the future is often wrong, since we cannot imagine everything that could happen.
This can lead us to create the wrong emotional response to future situations in our heads. But our belief in what will happen in the future can have a huge impact on our behavior.
For example, people who are optimistic (or even realistic) about the future are more willing to try new things. They are also prone to noticing what went well in new situations.
In contrast, people who imagine what could go wrong are less likely to try new things. And when they try something new, they are more likely to realize what went wrong.
This will be stored in your memory and will add reasons not to try new things in the future. As a result, dramatization can lead to undue stress and anxiety and prevent you from doing things you might enjoy or learn.
If you are someone who tends to act this way when you are stressed or anxious, there are some strategies that can help you.
1. Make decisions in the morning
We often worry about the future at night. When we sleep, activity decreases in the rational part of our brain, and activity increases in the more emotional part of our brain.
As a result, we tend to use our emotional brain to imagine the future when we are awake at night.
Lack of sleep can make us more sensitive to things we find threatening. This can lead us to focus more on what can go wrong and make us more vulnerable to disaster.
It can be helpful to remember that you don’t think rationally when you’re awake worrying about something. It can also be helpful to wait until the morning to make decisions when your mind is resting.
2. Watch how you criticize yourself
The catastrophe can be driven by our inner criticism.
When this happens, try to visualize it as if you were looking at someone else. What language will you use? Would you talk this way to someone else in a similar situation? Is language useful or justified? The answer to these questions is often no.
Be aware of the language you use with yourself when you are anxious or stressed. If it’s too harsh, try switching to a gentler way of talking to yourself.
3. Think of all the possibilities
Even if things went wrong in the past, they are unlikely to happen in the future – despite what we might tell ourselves.
If you tend to think catastrophically about future events, try to imagine the ways things might go well, which can help you feel less anxious.
Another strategy is to think of not just one, but many ways something could happen. This can help you remember that the stories you tell yourself are just stories.
Choosing to focus on those who have a positive outcome can also help you reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.
4. Empathize with yourself
Try to be more compassionate with yourself as you think about your future. It’s harder than you might think – even for highly empathetic, empathic people.
Empathy and empathy have evolved to help us interact well with others. In this way, it was not really intended to use compassion and empathy for ourselves.
But little things — like asking yourself what advice you would give a friend in your situation — can help you act differently.
Practicing this more often can help you see solutions when you might be able to focus only on the problem.
Planning for the ways things might go wrong in the future serves one purpose: to keep us safe.
But if you find that you frequently get into disaster by thinking about worst-case scenarios—especially to the detriment of your mental health—it may be important to remember that the things you worry about may never happen.
And if they do, they will probably end up doing a lot better than you think.
* Patricia Riddell is Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading, UK.
This article was originally published on the academic news site The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original version here (In English).
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