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Decatastrophizing: Change the Outcome by Changing Your Prediction

“I have failed this job interview. I guess I will never find a job. I am useless and worthless.”

“I had a fight with my partner. He will surely leave me and I will be forever alone.”

“I have a headache. That must be cancer. I’m surely going to die soon.”

“I have failed the task I was assigned. I’m a total failure and won’t achieve anything.”

Are some of these thoughts somehow familiar to you? In psychology, we call this way of thinking “catastrophizing”. It is a cognitive distortion that causes one to have irrational (usually negative) forecasts about future events, usually caused by extensive overthinking or some previous bad experience, sometimes related to depression and anxiety. It does not even include seeing things as black and white – all is painted black.

The problem is that the individuals that have their minds full of these potential catastrophes can easily become anxious and overwhelmed as they overestimate the probability of bad things happening, and perceive minor mistakes and failures as an apocalypse. Even when in fact the odds of these predictions coming true are really low. Likewise, they underestimate their ability to cope with the problem.

This view can also be connected to pessimism, as it can be used as a kind of coping mechanism – in their minds, expecting the worst will make them prepared and protect them from future disappointments and failures. However, it usually doesn’t work well, it is not a pleasant experience, people have great worries about their future as they think about the “what if” questions and waste their energy. Moreover, thinking like this can prevent you from initiating some important actions that could improve your situation. The therapeutic tool used in CBT to tackle catastrophizing is called decatastrophization. The goal is to break down and reconstruct the anticipated events so they are no longer viewed as disastrous. This technique consists of multiple steps that focus on various scenarios and outcomes of your situation, in order to make you feel more in control and less worried:

  1. In many situations, we often assume the worst will happen or see only the negative side of things. Focus on this in the first step – think for a moment about the situation you are dealing with and try to identify the worst scenario or outcome that could happen. What is the worst thing that could happen in your situation?

    1. For example, the worst scenario of one of the cases from the beginning of this post could be: “I will never find a job.”

    2. As you can see, this bad scenario might reflect your initial catastrophic thought. However, it sets a baseline from which you can work. If you manage to identify it, you can also think about your predicting abilities: have you made this prediction in the past, and did it come true? If it did, how much do you believe that this bad thing will happen again? If it didn’t, what is different now? Aren’t you having just some unnecessary doubts, aren’t you overestimating the odds?

  2. People are usually good at identifying the worst possible outcomes. However, they usually forget to consider other possibilities and limit their thinking. Therefore, it is helpful to consider also the best-case scenario, which is often equally plausible as the worst one. So, the second step consists of identifying the best scenario or outcome that could happen? What is the best thing that could happen in your situation?

    1. Following the first example, the best-case scenario of the same situation could be “I will find a perfect job in a week.”

    2. You might find out that it is quite difficult to come up with the best scenario. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by negative thinking and our abilities to see the bright side are limited. You don’t need to push yourself over your limits.

  3. Usually, our minds drift toward the more extreme outcomes, when in reality, the extremes happen less often. Our goal now is to find the most likely, the most realistic scenario. That one is usually somehow balanced between the worst and best possible outcomes. Therefore, the final step consists of questions like: What do you think is the most realistic scenario that could happen? What is the most likely possible outcome of your situation?

    1. The realistic scenario for the first situation could be “I might not find my dream job immediately, but it doesn’t mean I will be jobless forever.”

    2. This is an important step in achieving a calmer and more rational attitude toward a stressful situation. If you are having difficulty identifying the most likely scenario, it may be helpful to find a scenario that has an outcome that includes both positives and negatives, or to get inspired by others and their solutions or by your past achievements.

    3. Thinking about the realistic outcomes can sometimes get you thinking about things you could do to make those better outcomes more likely and initiate some actions.

  4. Even if you manage to go through all the possible scenarios, it can be helpful to also do a small follow-up to feel better. You can think about what you would do to manage the situation if you had to face the worst result. What would you do to deal with it? What or who could help you? What helped you in the past in similar situations?

    1. For example, you can always contact and consult your friends, your close ones, family members, or someone you trust. You can also seek some knowledge and insight by reading articles or books about the topic that worries you. You can also find comfort in your hobbies or pleasures that helped you in the past, do some exercises, maintain a healthy diet, write things down, or anything that helped you in the past to fight stress. In some situations, all that is needed is time, as things do get better over time, and time will heal the wounds.

    2. Keep in mind that some thoughts are more likely to take over when a person is tired and stressed. You can take a rest or try some relaxing methods if you know some.

    3. Another question you can ask yourself is: What are the costs and benefits of worrying about this situation? When you find out that the costs outweigh the benefits, you can say to yourself: "Thinking about this has no use to me now. Let it go." And then immediately refocus your mind on what’s actually going on around you (at this moment you can also try some relaxing techniques, such as Grounding)

    4. Or imagine that your worst worry does come true. What are the chances that you will be okay in a week, in a month, or even a year?

By intentionally letting go of worries again and again, you learn to become less consumed by anxiety and stress. Going through this exercise when needed can improve your problem-solving skills, and calm your thoughts and emotions for a moment. Remember that as with any other skills, practice makes perfect, and you will become more efficient in using this technique the more you practice. You can practice this exercise even when you are calm and not dealing with any problematic situation. Then, when you are in need, you will already know what to do.

This decatastrophizing technique is one of the tricks that Poppy knows, together with other exercises that are available to her. Try talking with her whenever your thoughts or emotions are making you feel down. She is here for you whenever you need to improve your mood!

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