Learn to respond skillfully to cognitive distortions like catastrophic thinking.
Cognitive distortions are thought viruses: errors in thinking. Our irrational and exaggerated thoughts have no base in reality . But we believe them anyway.
Naturally, all humans have a negativity bias. In an evolutionary context this is how our brain evolved. It kept us alive in the struggle for survival by anticipating the bad. The negativity bias results in us paying more attention to negative events we’re experiencing. We even lay down stronger memories which are more easily triggered for those experiences. And we may conjure up future scenarios that haven’t happened yet, that are bad. This is how our brain keeps us safe.
However, distorted thoughts become fertile soil for stressful emotions. These, in turn lead to anxiety. Anxiety then undermines our ability to feel good about life or ourselves.
One thought distortion is called catastrophising.
Catastrophising is sometimes also called magnifying. This emphasizes how we often amplify things way out of proportion in our mind. We may dream up nightmare scenarios and then believe them without question.
The first and second arrows – how we create our own anxiety by catastrophising
Catastrophising is a good example of thoughts that Buddha in his extensive studies of the mind called the “second arrow” (and the emotions that arise from them).
The first arrow refers to unpleasant experiences that are an inevitable part of everyday life. They can be mundane, like an appointment that fell through or traffic making us late for work – to more intensely unpleasant experiences. For example, waking up with a flare up of a chronic pain or having an accident.
We each have had many “first arrow” experiences of our own. Some days we’re bombarded with them, from the relatively insignificant like a computer crash to the major (the loss of a job… or a friend or family member).
Life is hard difficult enough just coping with the first arrow, no doubt about it.
The second arrow is an unnecessary one, but a significant issue for many of us. How we experience this depends on our personal histories and on our self awareness: the degree of understanding how our mind and emotions work.
Here’s how the second arrow plays out:
We experience the unpleasantness of the first arrow. Then, instead of simply acknowledging its presence and, if possible, trying to make things better, we blow things out of proportion in relation to the first experience. We could simply make another appointment, apologise for being late and move on, take a warm shower to try and ease our physical pain. Instead, how often do we engage in (an often well practiced!) stream of stressful thoughts and emotions about that unpleasant “first arrow” experience?
Buddha didn’t use the word “catastrophise”. However, it’s a great example of how we shoot ourselves in the foot with a second arrow by conjuring up worst-case scenarios instead of just taking care of the business at hand.
In other words, we tend to make things worse for ourselves.
Our own distorted thoughts create unwanted and unnecessary anxious emotions.
It’s as if we’re looking at an unpleasant experience through a magnifying glass, and so it appears way out of proportion to us.
I used being late as an example, because it’s a trivial experience. And yet, when it happens to you, how often do you say without irritation: “Oh, well, this appointment fell through; no big deal, we’ll make another one”?
If you’re like me, when you are met with an unpleasant experience, you tend to add a negative reaction.
This may not always rise to the level of catastrophising. It can however, if it becomes this kind of thought stream:
“Why are people so unreliable and always cancel on me? Don’t they have any respect – surely they knew earlier that they couldn’t make it and didn’t even bother calling. Perhaps they don’t even like me after all — or will cancel on me again. I feel so disrespected and let down.”
This is the second arrow. We magnify an unpleasant experience by making it into a catastrophe that keeps us from feeling at peace with our lives.
After all, if we considered the event mindfully — paying attention to why we value meeting with this person… remembering how hectic our own schedules can be — we might even prefer arranging a time that allows both sides to be fully present.
We have developed thinking habits over our lifetime. This is how we have become adept at making ourselves miserable by magnifying our disappointments and frustrations – until they seem like catastrophes.
Another simple example: I’ve been teaching myself some Spanish in an on and off fashion. Usually, after a few months of forgetting this pastime, I try to remember what I was up to. Inevitably, most of what I learned will have been forgotten again. I could feel compassion for how hard it is proving to be learning a language without adequate time and every day conversational incentives. Instead, I tend to spin irrational stories about my attempts:
“I’ll never figure this out. I am clearly getting to old to learn another language… this grammar is KILLING ME” That’s catastrophising.
How to stop the tendency to catastrophize
To reverse the tendency to catastrophise, put your experience into perspective.
Start by reminding yourself that not having things go as you want is an inevitable part of life.
Pay close attention to any “black and white” language in your thoughts.
Are you being judgmental of yourself (read my article on dealing with your own Inner Critic here) or others?
Re-frame your thoughts regarding whatever unpleasant experience which is setting off that second arrow.
Going with my examples, remind yourself that everyone has to revise a plan sometimes; it’s no big deal. Remember that just because you’re in pain this morning doesn’t mean you’ll be in pain every morning. Everything changes – including pain levels. Remind yourself that a new language is hard to learn.
In other words, ditch distorted thinking by first becoming aware that you’re engaged in it. Then you can counter that thinking by adopting a reasonable perspective on what’s going on. Will this still matter in 5 years’ time?
Sometimes I say to myself: “Stop! You’re catastrophising, and it’s only going to make an unpleasant situation worse.”
Gently say “Stop!”. This interrupts your tendency to start spinning those “second arrow” worst-case scenarios.
Clearly, this will not necessarily be easy. You may have a lifelong habit of blowing things out of proportion and assuming the worst, often about yourself.
The good news is that (thought) habits can change. The first step is to become aware. How are you making life more difficult for yourself by magnifying unpleasant experiences?
When changing ANY HABIT I recommend that you start very small.
— maybe with that next appointment or lateness or something you’ve spilled.
Show compassion to yourself and others, instead of habitually exaggerating unpleasant experiences. This makes it easier to maintain your peace of mind when you’re struck by harsher first arrows.