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How to Stop Overthinking and Catastrophizing

This week I've had two clients with a similar problem, expressed in very different circumstances. One has just been interviewed for a new internal role, and it's taking longer than they'd hoped for them to find out if they've got it. The other saw two of their friends out together without them, and they were devastated not to be invited.

Both then went into overthink mode - 'They must have decided I'm not right... I must have mucked up the interview... if I don't get this role that means I've really missed out/they think I'm only good for this one... My friends like each other more than they like me... Perhaps they were talking and laughing about me... Maybe my friendships mean more to me than they do to them...' And so on, and so on, and so on and on, endlessly and cripplingly. It spoilt one of these client's holidays, and the other took to their bed and couldn't get up again.

What's going on here?

This is catastrophizing - finding the worst possible outcomes, then piling negative consequences on top. Why do we do it? And, more importantly, what can we do to stop doing it?

Three reasons: ambiguity, value and fear. Ambiguity: a friend texts you, saying 'We need to talk.' What the hell does that mean? Have I done something wrong? Is my friend splitting up? Have they won the Lotto? The ambiguity leaves a gap, and since we want to understand what's happening, we fill it. Secondly, something needs not just to be ambiguous, but important to me (value). I don't know what the weather in Bogota is going to be tomorrow (ambiguity); but I don't care (no value). I'm in my house (value) but I know it's not on fire (no ambiguity).

Yes, but why the negative focus?

But even so, that doesn't explain the painful part of overthinking - the tendency to head for the negative possibilities. Here I think it's to do with protecting ourselves. If I start imagining that brilliant new job opportunity, I'll be all the more disappointed if it doesn't happen, whereas if I face up to the possibility it's not going to happen, then at least I'm prepared. If my friends don't really like me after all, I'd rather know about it than carry on deluding myself. If your offspring hasn't rung when they said they would, we mustn't lose valuable time - let's get the police, fire and ambulance out right away! Every second could be vital! (Blimey. I just made that up and scared myself a bit! It's OK, breathe...)

This is known as loss aversion, and some research suggests that we value loss twice as highly as gain. If I find $100, it affects me only half as much as if I lose $100. We're wired, I guess, to protect and value what we have rather than what we could get: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And by itself it's no bad thing, either: you can only fill your belly once, so having an extra dinner isn't all that - but going to bed hungry is something to avoid.

What can we do?

Warning: pretending there's no possibility of the bad outcome ('I'm sure it'll turn out just fine') is not smart, because it's not true: you're not sure things will turn out fine. You could miss out on the job; your friends might be less invested in the friendship than you are. Don't go 'manifesting your reality.' If you have a lump, see a doctor. If you want to avoid COVID, get the damn vaccination.

So what are some smart ways to help avoid catastrophizing? Firstly, focus on what's real. You don't know the outcome, and you are missing some information. What can you do instead? My job-seeking client asked me what I thought was going on. I refused to play their game, and instead asked them to consider what they could control or influence - how they could respond, if it is bad news. That's not catastrophizing, that's sensible career planning. If they behave in a mature, considered way when they get bad news, they've shown... well, shown how mature and considered they are.

I also asked them to use this opportunity to reflect on this pattern of behaviour (this isn't the first time: it rarely is, or is only once!). I suggested to them that, whatever the outcome, this is the end of one chapter of a long book, and there will be many more chapter endings for them to experience, and they might like to become better at handling them.

Those two activities - considering what you can control or influence; and learning from this experience - are both much healthier activities than speculating pointlessly.

My other client told me that one reason why they'd been downcast about seeing their friends together was that they'd recently called one of them out for not treating them as a good friend would. Wow! That's a terrific thing. I wanted them to notice and to celebrate that they are beginning to value themselves, and just as importantly they were helping their friend to understand what being a good friend actually means.

For them both, and for you (or, ahem, for your friend, the one who does the catastrophizing), here's three things you can do to reduce the overthinking. Firstly, whenever there's an ambiguous, important event that attacks your fear and you find yourself starting to catastrophise, do this: find three explanations that aren't negative. So, for example: I haven't heard about the new gig because (a) my boss is indecisive; (b) my boss has to clear the appointment with their boss, who is indecisive or slow to get back to them; or (c) my boss has already decided, but thinks it's best to leave it a little while before letting me know (one way or the other) because they don't want it to look as if they'd rushed into it. And in the other case, my friends were out together without me because (a) one of them has something very private they only want to discuss with the other friend; (b) they like me and they like each other, and it never occurred to them that we were now a triangle; or (c) one asked the other, and the other didn't then start asking who else was invited.

The second thing you can work on? Begin to increase your tolerance for ambiguity in areas of low value that don't attack your fear, and therefore in situations you won't find so threatening. For example: when someone who's not that important to you phones, don't answer, and don't pick up the message for a while. (If it's important, they'll call again very soon.) If someone rings the doorbell, don't answer. (If it's a parcel, they'll leave a note telling you where it is.) Toss a coin and put it away without seeing whether it came up heads or tails. Close your eyes when passing a traffic light... but only if you're a passenger! These things sound silly and small, and that's because they are. When you can do these things, try shifting it up a gear. If a friend calls, will you be able not to answer it right away? If they're a good friend, that won't mean they'll drop you if you don't answer first time. And if a friend calls to say 'We need to talk,' try leaving it a while longer before you call back (having first done the three-other-explanations exercise).

And the third thing you can do is this: remind yourself that thoughts are real, but they're not reality. That one benefits from not being explained further.

Oh, and the fourth of the three things is this. When that stoopid monkey brain kicks in and starts doing the 'What about...' and the 'What if...' and the 'Maybe this means...' then take in what's happening around you and acknowledge five things you can see (a pen, your phone, the ceiling, the floor, a cup); four things you can touch (your hair, the floor, your phone, that cup); three things you can hear (the humming of your computer or of the aircon, traffic outside, your tummy rumbling); two things you can smell (your wrist, the contents of your cup) and finally one thing you can taste (the inside of your mouth).

If you'd like to work on your overthinking and/or catastrophizing, make an appointment. It's more common than you think, and you don't have to be stuck doing it.

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