One of the central messages of my teachings is that our thoughts influence our feelings, and our feelings influence our actions. For example, if we’re feeling excessively bad, chances are we’re thinking badly – or, at least, in an unhelpful way. Although we don’t often intend to think in unhelpful ways, the majority of our thoughts are subconscious, or habitual, and therefore occur outside of our awareness.
Having said this, our emotions can be a tremendous source of information with regard to capturing these unhelpful ways of thinking, or thinking errors.
I’d like to introduce you to a common thinking error which often coincides with feelings of fear, anxiety, or even panic. It’s called catastrophizing and it occurs when we take a relatively minor negative event and begin to imagine a multitude of disasters.
Below are a few examples.
You’re waiting for your teenage son to arrive home after a night out with friends. The clock strikes 10:00 pm and there is no sign of his arrival. By 10:05, you start imagining that he’s accepted a ride from another friend who happens to drive recklessly. At 10:15, you’re convinced that he’s been in a traffic accident. By 10:20, you’re weeping uncontrollably.
You’re at a party and you accidentally trip on the carpet as you’re making your way to the hors d’oeuvres. You decide to leave the party, convinced that everyone who witnessed your mishap is still laughing at you.
You send a text to a friend about a personal matter, and when she doesn’t respond immediately, you become convinced that she’s shown the text to several of her friends asking for their opinion.
It’s important to note that in each of the above examples, it wasn’t the circumstance that caused the individual to feel a certain way, but rather the way in which they interpreted the circumstance. Each of the above events was interpreted through a catastrophic lens, so it’s not surprising that the resulting emotions were fear and anxiety.
The best way to nip catastrophic thinking in the bud is to recognize it for what it is – just thoughts. When you find yourself thinking of the “doom and gloom” scenarios, try one of the following strategies.
Choose curious thoughts. What other reasons might there be for my son being late? I wonder if the movie ran late or they lost track of time while chatting after the movie. Being late for curfew is common for adolescents, so perhaps we should have a conversation about communication when he gets home.
Consider the evidence. If you were in a courtroom, would any evidence exist that your friend is showing your text to others? The majority of the time, our evidence is based solely on FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real).
Try an alternative perspective. Chances are that people are far less interested in your embarrassing moments than you think. Don’t take yourself too seriously. We all have our moments.