"I'm positive that none of my friends will ever speak to me again!" Yesterday, a middle-school student tearfully made this announcement in our counseling session. One of her dear, trusted friends had revealed my client's deepest, darkest secrets to her other friends. And, now, she is sure everyone will hate her.
Another student was sure her parents would divorce after an argument the night before. A teacher wondered if a recent minor financial setback would lead her family into financial ruin. Highly unlikely, I reasoned in each case. It may seem like the world is ending, but it really isn't!
Thinking that a major catastrophe is likely to follow a minor disappointment or mishap is a common thinking error that psychologist refer to as "catastrophizing." It is so common in my practice, in fact, that I specifically talk about it with most of my adolescent clients. Catastrophizing is part of a whole set of thinking errors that people often make that contribute to depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems. This "stinkin' thinkin'" becomes the constant background dialogue in our heads that, though at first may be easily dismissed as irrational, can start to seem true if we aren't carefully examining our thoughts.
Do you ever find yourself thinking this way? Do you make "mountains out of molehills?" Do you often find yourself imagining the worst case scenario? You may exaggerate the importance of some things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), while inappropriately minimizing things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or another person's imperfections). Or maybe you see your child starting to adopt this thinking pattern, "crying over spilled milk" and panicking over small set-backs. Are you seeing your teen become more withdrawn or anxious? It could be because s/he is mentally maximizing or minimizing the importance of his/her current situation.
It's important to deal with your catastrophic thinking (or your child's) before it becomes a core thinking pattern. Here are some tips:
- You have to catch your thinking errors before you can change them. Make an effort to question your thoughts when you start feeling depressed or anxious. Could any of your thoughts be inaccurate catastrophizing rather than actual truth?
- Ask yourself, "What are other possible outcomes or explanations?" Try to consider all other possible outcomes or explanations, including those that are positive, slightly negative, or neutral.
- Don't allow your mind to argue away the possibility of a positive alternate explanation. Many people will tell me, "Well, yes that could be, BUT . . . " If you catch your mind saying "but," immediately turn your mind away from that thought.
- Make a distinction between an unpleasant situation and a catastrophe. Sure, it may suck that you failed an exam, but it probably won't mean that you'll flunk out of school. Ask yourself, "Could it be that this situation is just really unpleasant, but not permanent and drastic?"
- Remind yourself, or your child, of your ability to cope. Engage in "positive self-talk" to encourage yourself that you will get through this difficult situation. You can do it, you've done it before! Remind yourself or your child of times you were able to overcome setbacks. Also, remember the loving support systems that have helped you through difficult times in the past.
- To help a child steer away from stinkin' thinkin', try these steps.
- First, try to get a child to talk about what they are thinking in a moment where you see high emotions. When they've calmed down a bit from a crying or angry spell, ask them, "What is going through your mind right now?" "What thoughts are popping into your head?"
- Don't judge a child's response, even if it seems silly. Just acknowledge their feeling and listen. For example, "I'm so sorry that your friend let you down. That really is disappointing and sad."
- Next, remind them of alternate explanations. "Could it be that maybe one or two friends won't completely disown you?" "Have any of your friends actually told you that they hate you now?" "Could it be that they could be mad for just a short time?"
- If a child resists exploring alternate thoughts, remind them that they may be stinkin' thinkin.' Give them some time to calm down a little more. Later, say, "Let's think a little bit more about what happened earlier."
- Remind them of their ability to cope. Remind them of times they tackled difficult situations. Remind them of other times they imagined the worst, and ask them if the worst possibility actually happened.
- Pray and remind them that God is with them. Although the devil is the father of lies, a roaring lion, seeking to devour us with stinkin' thinkin', we can overcome with the help of our Father in heaven!
- All or nothing thinking. Seeing situations, people, or ourselves as either all good or all bad.
- Overgeneralization. Seeing a single event as a never-ending pattern. You can know these thoughts by the words "always," "never," or "absolutely."
- Mental filter. Dwelling on a single negative event or seeing the one negative factor in a situation that might have many positives as well.
- Disqualifying the positive. Rejecting the importance of positive experiences by insisting they "don't count."
- Jumping to conclusions. Making a negative conclusion even if there aren't facts to support your conclusion. Examples are mind-reading (arbitrarily assuming someone is acting negatively) or fortune-telling (assuming a negative event will happen in the future).
- Emotional reasoning. "I feel it, so it must be true." Allowing your negative emotional state to guide your interpretations of a situation.
- Should statements. Setting up arbitrary requirements for yourself or others which cause feelings of guilt and disappointment when they aren't met.
- Personalization. Feeling responsible for situations you have no control over.