Do you struggle with jumping to the worst possible conclusion when things go wrong?
If so, I bet it’s causing you more worry than needed.
Hey Friend, things can get better!
The ideas in this post will help you know what catastrophic thinking is, why it’s so destructive to living life abundantly, and how to recognize when you start spiraling. Part 2 is full of solutions to break free from the cycle of catastrophic thinking. It’s totally possible!
Also check out the BONUS video and FREE resource below to help you live life more abundantly.
It was a disaster in the making.
Finally the house was quiet and I crawled my tired mama self into bed for the night. I’d managed to get all three of our small children to bed and they were finally asleep. Lights were turned out. Doors were locked. I’d talked on the phone with my husband who was out of town on business.
Now it was just me in the silence with only the sound of crickets out my window somewhere in the summer night. I could have fallen right to sleep with the peace that everything was as it should be and all was well.
But I didn’t.
I worried most of the night over one little question.
What if the house caught on fire?
How would I get the kids out safely on my own? I thought about each child and how I’d bundle them up in my arms and lead them to safety. Pretty soon in my mind the fire blocked the hallway, our only path to any of the doors to escape. How would we all get out the window and down the two stories to safety? How would I hold the baby and climb down? How would my two young sons make it down? Would I have to choose which child to save?
It was an impossible situation and I agonized over every scenario. I worried for hours in the dark and in the end I despaired that we’d all just die in the flames.
My friend, have you ever worried like that? Has one little thought or idea spiraled into catastrophe leaving you gripped in anxiety? For a long time in my life I was the queen of catastrophizing. And it became the tool that carved deep ruts of habitual depression, panic, and anxiety into the neuropathways of my brain. It was the source of great anguish for a long time.
But only in my head. And maybe yours too!
I’ve now learned how powerful our thoughts are for emotional well-being. If I could go back in time I’d love to teach my younger self the things I’ve learned about how to STOP CATASTROPHIZING and feel more peace and joy.
Friend, if you find your worry is also wreaking havoc on your ability to live life abundantly, let me share some ideas I’ve learned and put into practice that have helped me so much.
Another mother many years ago had this same struggle with catastrophic thinking and it robbed her peace, caused her to mourn, and left her lacking in faith. It lead to contention in her relationships and ignited doubt.
Her story illustrates a pattern of catastrophic thinking and how it can send you spiraling into depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. It also provides a powerful solution for breaking free from this slippery cycle.
A terrific example from scripture.
This mother is Sariah, the prophet Nephi’s mother in the Book of Mormon, scriptures in my faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For those not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and who haven’t yet read this story, I’ll do my best to give you context so it’ll make sense. If you’d like to read this story yourself you can read or listen to it for free on the LDS Tools App or here. It’s found in 1 Nephi chapter 5 of the Book of Mormon.
So to give you the background, the family of Lehi and Sariah fled Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ was born. Lehi was a prophet commanded of the Lord to prophecy to the Jews to repent of their wickedness or be destroyed. They didn’t listen to Lehi and schemed to kill him . Consequently, not much later, Jerusalem was captured by Babylon under King Nebuchadnessar in 597 B.C. I’m sure Lehi would love to say I told you so.
But before the destruction of Jerusalem, God warned Lehi in a dream to flee with his family into the wilderness for their lives. So, Sariah and Lehi and their family escaped into the wilderness.
Things get rough.
Not long into their journey Lehi was told by the Lord to send his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain the ancestral and scriptural records that were carved on plates of brass so they could take them with them on their journey.
The thing is, this was no easy task as the records were in the possession of Laban, a powerful man in Jerusalem. Somehow Sariah’s sons would need to find a way to persuade Laban to give the records to them. It was risky business, besides the dangerous trip back through the wilderness.
When her sons didn’t return when she thought they should, she began to worry like any mother would. Watch as Sariah’s worry escalates into catastrophic thinking and how this steals her joy, and peace. This account is from Nephi, one of Sariah’s sons who left to go back to Jerusalem:
“For she had truly mourned because of us. For she had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold, thou has led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.” 1 Nephi 5:1,2
Wow! She went from zero to one-hundred. From worry to catastrophe.
She first supposed something had happened to her sons in the wilderness, then she reinforced that thought with complaining to her husband about it and blaming him, and pretty soon everyone is perishing in the wilderness.
And the result? Sariah mourned, complained, blamed, doubted, worried, believed the worst and it made her feel terrible.
What is catastrophic thinking?
We fall into catastrophic thinking when we jump to the worst possible conclusion when the slightest thing goes wrong. It causes us to feel more anxiety, panic, and depression than we need to all because we worry and believe the worst has happened or will happen. When a situation is upsetting but not necessarily disastrous, we still feel like we are in the midst of a crisis. Psychology Today
When we catastrophize we experience unneeded worry and upset. We work ourselves into a total emotional wreck. Catastrophic thinking robs us of living life abundantly. Just like it did when I stayed up all night anguishing about a home-fire disaster that never happened. Just like it did for Sariah.
Sariah’s sons made it back safely. And my house never caught fire. See the wasted energy and lost joy all resulting from catastrophic thinking?
What about you?
My friend, this is not abundance. And we want to live life abundantly.
Not only does this story from the Book of Mormon perfectly illustrate the cycle of catastrophic thinking, it also gives solutions for breaking that cycle. We’ll get to that in part two of this series.
But first, let’s slow down Sariah’s spiraling moment and see how it breaks down into key elements. Understanding these elements will help you recognize them in yourself. And the first step to stopping the spiral is to recognize it’s happening in the first place.
Key elements of catastrophic thinking.
I see the following key elements of catastrophic thinking in Sariah’s story. See if you recognize this pattern in yourself sometimes.
Sariah worried about her sons, and when they didn’t return from their dangerous journey when she thought they should, the cycle began.
Usually a circumstance becomes an igniting event when you’ve determined that something MUST NOT HAPPEN. And if it does happen you believe it only means disaster.
Or that it MUST HAPPEN and if it doesn’t it’s the worst thing ever.
An activating event is an unpleasant situation, event or circumstance, such as:
- your daughter is late coming home
- being asked to speak to a group
- your spouse is unfaithful
- getting a speeding ticket
- someone says something to you
- someone doesn’t say something to you
- you get the dreaded phone call
- a death in the family
- your husband can’t be reached
- a friend doesn’t show up for a lunch date
- being late to an event
The interesting thing about igniting events and situations is that in and of themselves they’re neutral. The actual event isn’t making us feel badly. It’s only the way we think about these events that sends us spiraling or not.
Judgement, Thoughts & Beliefs
After an igniting event happens, we make judgements about whether the event is good or bad, threatening or nonthreatening, a problem or no big deal.
Then, based on our judgement, we have a thought or belief about that event. When Sariah’s sons didn’t return on time she judged that as a bad thing. Then the thought followed: she “supposed” her sons had perished in the wilderness. She believed that thought and despaired.
I’ll give you an example from my own life just the other day. I couldn’t reach my husband who was out of town for business. When he didn’t answer after multiple calls, I started to worry, judging the situation as a problem. Something must be wrong. Had he been mugged? Was he lying on the street somewhere? Was he sick and couldn’t get to his phone?
See how fast we can go from event to judgement to thought to believing catastrophe has happened? I recognized where my mind was taking me and kept my cool until he could call me later. The truth was he was still in a late business meeting and couldn’t pick up.
We have the choice right here to decide if this event is something we are going to get into fight-or-flight mode about or not, depending on how we perceive that event, what our judgement of the event is. What if we instead of believing catastrophe had happened, we chose a different thought that served us better? More on that later.
We have emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses to our thoughts. Our thoughts are the precursor to our emotions and emotions drive our behavior. Depending on how we perceive the igniting event, we’ll experience either positive or negative emotions. We may feel at peace or troubled, safe or threatened, happy or sad. All from what we believe about the igniting event.
We then experience physiological responses to that emotion. If you feel threatened, you might experience:
- a racing heart
- sweaty hands
Think of a time you last saw the flashing lights in your rearview mirror. Did your stomach lurch? Your hands turn sweaty. Did you feel a panic in your chest. Those were physiological responses to a perceived threat.
We also respond with our actions. We may withdraw, ruminate, strike out, blame, or complain.
When Sariah believed her sons perished in the wilderness, she mourned, complained, blamed, and lost faith.
When I thought about all the awful scenarios in my mind of a burning house I felt worried and rumminated for hours, felt panicky, nervous, and was unable to sleep most of the night.
Thoughts can pass without fanfare across our mind like all the other thousands of the thoughts we have in a day. Or, they can become our central focus and grow in magnitude as we give them our attention. We feed the distressing thoughts and give them power by focusing on them, nursing them with rumination and substantiating language.
We reinforce the unhelpful thought and belief by thinking of all the scenarios, finding evidence to support it and tell it to ourselves and others again and again. This is all the negative self-talk we do and sometimes aren’t even aware we’re doing it. We can’t let it go. It becomes the center of our awareness and the utmost problem our mind has to solve.
Our brains are amazing things. Our mind goes to work solving whatever problem is presented to it. When we reinforce catastrophic thinking our brains go into overdrive to solve the impending doom we believe is about to happen or has happened. Our brain really does believe what we tell ourselves.
Sariah reinforced the doom by complaining to her husband and blaming him for their terrible circumstance. She lost faith and called her husband a “visionary man”.
I reinforced the thought of disaster by fire through rumination. I envisioned each and every gnarly scenario. My brain was determined to find a solution to saving everyone. I couldn’t let it go and go to sleep. The thought had my full focus and complete attention.
The cycle continues.
The catastrophic-thinking cycle continues as you reinforce the thought with your attention and focus. You experience greater emotional, physiological, and behavior responses. New escalated thoughts come to mind. You believe them, have responses to them, reinforce them, and spiral into despair, anxiety, panic, and depression. You’re caught.
Just like Sariah. “My sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.” (verse 2).
And just like me. “We’ll all just die in the flames.”
Hey Friend, the good news is that we can escape the cycle of catastrophic thinking at any stage of the game. At each turn of the spiral toward despair there’s an escape route we can take. You always have a choice. You don’t have to go down that well-oiled pathway that leads to depression, anxiety, and panic. Read Part 2 to learn how.
If I’d had this understanding years ago, I could have fallen asleep peacefully to the sound of the crickets in the night. If she’d understood, Sariah could have been spared unnecessary worry and turmoil.
I hope to help you understand these principles now so you can stop wasting your life away worrying and instead live life abundantly.
Keep reading here for Part Two to learn how to break free from the cycle of catastrophic thinking. Hey, Friend, you’ve got this! Living life more abundantly is possible and I can’t wait to show you how. See you over at Part Two!
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