PHOTO: Jeremy Perkins
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
In crisis situations, people react in different ways. There are people who tend to fall into something we call catastrophic thinking. What is actually catastrophic thinking?
Catastrophic thinking is a type of cognitive distortion in which the person who does it falls into spirals of negative thinking that end up distorting reality.
Catastrophic thinking is often not conscious and can be overwhelming. The person who catastrophizes is usually convinced that the catastrophe is imminent and thinking about it serves to protect themselves.
If the danger were actually real, thinking about it constantly and rethinking different possible scenarios could be adaptive to protect oneself from it. However, most of the time this is not the case.
Where does it come from?
Catastrophic thinking can occur in response to traumatic events in the past (very often in childhood) that reframed our view of the world or reinforced beliefs such as that the world is evil, that people should not be trusted, and that trying to do things can go wrong. On the other hand, we can learn catastrophic thinking from our parents if this was their way of “managing emotions”.
Catastrophic thinking can also be associated with mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression (since catastrophic thinking can lead to feelings of hopelessness), or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Human beings easily react with fear in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. This reaction is adaptive from the point of view of evolution, but it is not always so today.
How are the spirals formed and why are they maintained?
When we think about these negative scenarios for a long time, they seem more and more real to us and have more power to increase emotions such as anxiety. In reaction to this anxiety, we think even more about possible catastrophes. We can continue like this to infinity and beyond, which becomes more and more intense and stable. This causes that the more time passes, the more difficult it is to change it.
In addition, to understand the formation of catastrophic thought spirals, it is important to understand that reacting with fear implies learning for our brain. Being afraid of a situation, even if only imaginary, is information for our brain that this situation is dangerous. On the other hand, acting in the same situation without fear does not trigger anxiety and we could reaffirm that nothing is happening.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but studies (and experience) show that we are more emotional than rational. That is why when we assess the risk of a situation, instead of basing ourselves on statistical probability, we make unconscious statistics of how many times we have thought about something and how much anxiety it has generated. This process is much more subjective than objective and conditions us to suffer from catastrophic thinking.
And how can we stop this loop of catastrophism?
- It is very important to be able to become aware of our thoughts and realize how they flow. To achieve this, mindfulness techniques are very useful, which also help us see thoughts with perspective, as something that we actively think or decide to think and not something that is an inseparable part of ourselves.
- On the other hand, it is important to work on self-confidence. This helps us not to doubt our ability to handle difficulties once they appear.
- It is important to act by solving problems when they appear and thus reinforce our conviction that we have the capacity to handle them.
- Finally, although I think it should be the first: it is essential to understand and accept our tendency to catastrophic thinking so as not to blame ourselves for it since this could be counterproductive.