When things don’t work out quite how we’d hoped, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair and get sucked into a negative spiral of doom-laden thoughts, whisked in a matter of minutes from a place of mediocre-level worry, to out-and-out panic.
Your boss might hint that something perhaps wasn’t what she’d been expecting and you find yourself propelled into thinking you will get the sack, you’ll fall behind in mortgage payments, you won’t be able to find another job and will end up on the streets. Or you gain a couple of pounds when you’re trying to lose weight, and suddenly, in your head, you are stones heavier, completely unable to get back on track with your healthy eating plan, and doomed forever to be obese and out of control with food.
Where do these catastrophising thoughts come from, and how can we stop them? Negative thinking is an entirely normal human tendency, stemming from hundreds-of-thousands-years-old evolutionary development. Cavemen and women focused primarily on danger and threat, as a survival instinct, and this acute spotlight on what may go wrong has stayed with us as a species.
It’s normal and human, but we don’t have to live with it.
A good starting point for dealing with overly-negative thinking is to remember that, without training, our brains can be somewhat unreliable and often unhelpful. Left untethered, our minds will wander very easily to the bad, the scary and the truly terrifying. But most of these imagined, fear-inducing situations will never actually take place – our heads are just preparing us for the (unlikely) event that they might.
To challenge this process when it happens, first of all we must NOTICE. Catch yourself as your mind drifts into catastrophe mode. Be aware of it happening and LABEL it – “Ah, there goes my caveman/woman catastrophising head again!”, you may say to yourself. Next, WRITE down the thought you are thinking – perhaps it’s similar to one of the above examples, such as being sacked or suddenly gaining tons of weight (when really you’ve just gained a couple of pounds). Now you can write down your CHALLENGES to these scary caveman thoughts;
“My boss has just suggested I could have done this job differently, and has in no way implied I am getting the sack”, or “I have gained 2 pounds, not 10 stones, and this is easy to get back off with a healthy diet and more exercise”.
Now comes the next stage, which is to MAKE YOUR PLAN. What concrete steps can you take to rectify this situation and help yourself make progress in whatever challenge you are experiencing? For instance, in the work scenario, you could:
A) Make an appointment with your boss to get feedback
B) Redo the task based on the above feedback
C) Book in an appraisal in a month’s time to find out how your boss thinks you’re doing and what, if anything could be improved upon.
In the weight loss example, you could:
A) Keep a food diary for a week and uncover where those extra calories are coming from
B) Commit to a regular exercise regime
C) Make a recipe plan for the week that includes lots of healthy and low-fat recipes.
When we examine our thoughts and consider them from a more objective perspective, we regain a sense of control, and this replaces any creeping panic. It’s entirely normal to jump to the worst case scenario but we don’t have to allow that version of our future to become the one we believe. We can observe it, challenge it, and ultimately, we can grow from it.