top of page

When catastrophising becomes a full time job

Episode 2 of The energy series

Will my heavy exercise bike fall through the bedroom floor? Will social media suck our children of their individualism and creativity? How long before my son gets his arm broken playing rugby? How happy are our teenagers in today's society? Do I have time to empty the dish washer and walk the dog? The list was endless and jumped between present problems to long term worries, from the mundane to the soul searching.

A situation could literally pop into my head and start unfolding with a progressively more catastrophic outcome (they were rarely positive ponders) and completely drain my mental energy, throwing me into a downward spiral that would gather momentum rapidly.

This is the art of "catastrophising" - the act of continually overestimating the likelihood of a disaster and rationalising a runaway train of irrational thoughts.

"I was an amateur worrier. Then I had children and turned professional"

With three children and a busy life with various influences from different societal groups I realised that if catastrophising was going to continue to be my modus operandi when faced with any challenges I was going to be a shadow of myself by this time next year.

I have become a firm believer that you need to nurture your personality traits and not necessarily try to "fix" them. I worry because I care and I love that I care. It has benefits! I am a stickler for getting things right and I put everything into my work and family. So 3rd parties benefit from my worrying you might say. But the energy drain became unmanageable and with motherhood opening up a whole new list of potential worries, they were hijacking an unhealthy portion of my time. The bottom line is they zapped my energy severely!

So I have spent the past couple of years researching and testing out various strategies and theories. It is a continuous journey for me as I had a very bad case of catastrophising but I hope that sharing my thoughts through blogging, coaching and workshops I might benefit others so together we can slow down this runaway train.

Planning for the unplannable

We can't control events so why expect them to go according to plan? It is the expectations that we layer into life that create the possibility of disappointment. The stoics, a small group of philosophers from ancient Greece, lived by the premise that life happens, and you can't control it. What will be will be.

"Amor fati" Love one's fate

I truly love the stoic ideas and am not at all surprised that this ancient philosophy is benefitting from a huge resurgence in popularity. I have gained great comfort from their teachings and they now form a part of my own coaching methodology. My top 3 stoic quotes relating to the topic of catastrophising are:

  1. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Epictetus

  2. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Aurelius

  3. “He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.” Seneca

Having this awareness that it is our reactions that determine how a situation plays out encourages us to stop and think. If you have the opportunity I highly recommend looking up the Stoics.

Revisiting the two brains

I introduced my two brains in a previous blog. Here I would like to reacquaint you as the two brains play a huge part in the catastrophising conundrum. The human is your rational, logical brain and your monkey brain is impulsive, short term, and selective in memory. Your monkey is the one telling you that this situation will not end well, and that all sorts of terrible things might happen.

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” Michel de Montaigne

Establishing whether your human or monkey is in charge is the first step. This is done by firstly acknowledging your monkey. If we don't recognise that these thoughts are coming from that impulsive brain then we can't take steps to change the thought pattern. The second is intervention - slowing down the monkey to allow your human time to catch up and talk sense into him. And so we introduce the cognitive behavioural techniques to appease the irrational brain.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

We now know that catastrophising is the work of our monkey mind not the logical human's mind. We know the thoughts are not helpful. How do we change these thought patterns? Here CBT (a therapy that helps you change thoughts and behaviours) can help.

Question your monkey: Ask him questions such as "Is this thought helpful?" "Is there any truth to this thought?" "Can I break down the problem?" Just the simple act of questioning those thoughts can break the worry flow.

"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another." William James

Stop: a pause and then following a breathing exercise can break the runaway train in your head. Simply following one of the many breathing exercises which focuses your thoughts on slow inhalations and exhalations can shift your thoughts and calm your central nervous system - providing the potential to change your state pretty quickly.

Challenge your catastrophic thought: is this outcome a certainty? Always? Might an alternative happen?

“worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose” Elkhart Tolle

Would the outcome really be so terrible? if I am late, if I miss the (normally self imposed) deadline? It can be helpful to question your chimp head on, face up to the outcome and take comfort that the worst might not be such a "catastrophe" after all.

Gratitude - when you are faced with a difficult situation, which might have an undesirable outcome that is beyond your control, bringing the gratitude practice in to play can be a game changer. Whilst by now it is a well know idea, practicing the concept is still very alien to many. It doesn't have to be written down (although I highly recommend a daily gratitude practice) but when faced with an immediate issue, thinking 3 grateful thoughts can really support you in bringing positivity back in to a situation. Don't knock it til you try it.

Lack of sleep, too much alcohol and no exercise

If you are in a weakened health position this will undoubtedly speed up the catastrophising: whether it be lack of sleep, excessive alcohol the night before or feeling too busy to exercise for a few days. All of these factors have played a huge part in how balanced I feel emotionally, so much so that I stopped drinking entirely (see previous blog, I now try to exercise daily and I am far more considered with my sleep habits. This has helped my mental energy massively.

My favourite daily worry reducers

Along with those mentioned above I have picked up quite a few daily worry preventing techniques along the way. These are some of my favourites:

  1. The map is not the territory - I love this concept and use it daily - the premise that everyone is following their own journey and their view is not your view. It helps when I struggle to relate to my teenagers, to my son after a difficult day at school, in awkward conversations etc

  2. Change the language- I used to sigh a lot more under the strain of an endless to do list. Now (for the most part) instead of "I have so much to do", I genuinely try to remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do it all and to have people that need me etc etc It may sound twee written down but I promise you it works. There is plenty more to the language piece such as replacing strong negative words with less harsh ones - "I am stressed" with "I am pretty busy!" It honestly works in changing your state.

  3. Daily positives - well journaling in general - but at the very least if you can start or end your day reflecting on 3 positives this action has the power to change your mood (for a journaling template to get you started send me an email)

  4. This will make me stronger - knowing that there is strength to be gained from situations can lower the stressfulness of it

  5. Google tasks! getting down my worries on paper is like literally extracting them from my brain. I love this modern way of keeping notes as it is with me all the time. Now I only action tasks from the list!

I am passionate about supporting people improve their energy levels and this is just one of those areas we delve into on my coaching programs.

Feel free to sign up to my blog posts to receive the next instalment of my Energy series.

I hope you can take one thing from this post and observe how it brings you more energy, less negativity, less catastrophising.


Current programs on offer

I run a variety of courses and workshops around all the topics in my energy series and alcohol relationship series. Please check out my courses online


Blog posts

Blogposts in the energy series

Blog posts in the alcohol series


Suggested external readings

For a modern take on From Ryan Holiday:

The Daily Stoic

The Obstacle is the way

To delve into that monkey mind follow Dr Stephen Peters

The chimp paradox


bottom of page