Do you ever find yourself entertaining worst-case scenarios, seemingly without even making a conscious decision to do so? Once you start thinking like this, it becomes tough to get back to a positive perspective and you can quickly become unwilling to leave your comfort zone. This is called catastrophizing, and it can become a harmful habit. It is often part of an overly pessimistic worldview, and it can have profoundly negative impacts on your mental health and productivity. After all, if you're convinced that everything is going to turn out terribly, you're unlikely to feel very motivated to follow your dreams.
But what can you do about a tendency to catastrophize? This guide will walk you through the nature of catastrophizing, offering eight steps you can start taking today in order to stop being a pessimist. Throughout, we'll consider a range of different types of catastrophizing and offer concrete examples that show you how to change and how to be optimistic.
Essentially, catastrophizing involves believing that things are far worse than they actually are. For some people, catastrophizing happens at the personal level. For example, you might imagine you'll get a fatal disease in the near future, or think every date will be a disaster.
However, it's equally common to catastrophize on a global scale, constantly worrying that the current political climate is going to lead to disaster. In addition, there's a form of catastrophizing which focuses on the present rather than the future; you might have a tough day at work and draw the conclusion that you're going to get fired.
If you've been a pessimist for most of your adult life, you might think that's just the way you are; a hardwired part of your character.
However, while you can't snap your fingers and immediately become an optimist, there are small but powerful adjustments you can make to your daily life to encourage a different perspective. As you read through the following tips, think of how you might best apply them to your life (in your work life, personal life, and overall view of the world), and reflect on which are likely to be the most effective in helping you to change.
When you really believe in a particular cause, that conviction is strong enough to overpower a tendency towards catastrophizing and pessimism. Of course, not just any cause will do.
A fleeting interest will only give you a few weeks of positivity. Instead, think about what you're truly committed to supporting, and what causes really mean something to you. No matter what your cause, working to support it keeps you focused on your power to change things.
If nothing comes to mind at first, try writing down a list of things you care about, then consider what causes might be linked to those values. For example, if you love animals, perhaps there's a commitment you can make to champion animal rights or help at an animal shelter.
Alternatively, if you write down a very general value like “justice”, you might want to look into doing volunteer work for a charity that fights some kind of racial or social inequality.
A lot of pessimists and catastrophizers focus only on evidence that supports their negative, gloomy view of the world. If this sounds like you, challenge your mindset by deliberately exposing yourself to exciting, inspiring stories of people who achieve great success, change the world or overcome enormous obstacles. The more of these stories you read, the more reason you have to believe that your usual way of thinking about things is off base. In time, this process can actually rewire your brain, creating new neural pathways that support positivity.
To ensure that the stories resonate with you at a particularly deep level, try focusing on ones that contain some similarities to your own life. So, if you want to start your own business, read about the most amazing entrepreneurs. And if you're struggling with difficult love life, look for stories about how heartbreak often starts people on the path to meeting the right partner.
If you're a pessimist, it's highly likely that you spend a large portion of your life focusing on what's impossible, things that are beyond your control or your abilities. The more you do this, the more helpless you'll feel and the less satisfied you'll feel with the world (and your place in it). To move away from the catastrophizing mindset, you need to make a shift to focusing on possibilities rather than impossibilities.
What does this look like in practice?
Imagine, for example, that you're thinking about how it's impossible for you to be rich enough to buy the home you want tomorrow. When you catch yourself thinking in this way, challenge yourself by asking “What can I do, right now, to make it possible for me to buy the home I want at some point in the future? What strategies can I employ to start earning more money today?”.
When pessimists reflect on how they got to this place of negative thinking, they often realize that they lack a solid support network. No matter how you ended up in a lonely position, it's hard to deny that going through life by yourself makes everything look a little bleaker.
In addition, you're less likely to have someone around to challenge your views or to notice when you're blowing negative events out of proportion. You need to have people in your life who can cheer you up and help you be your best self.
If you know you already have friendships that serve this function, spend more time maintaining these connections and make it known that you really do want to be less of a pessimist.
Meanwhile, if you need to make new connections, try joining a class, a book group, or just striking up a conversation with someone new at work.
Another common trait of catastrophizers is that they frequently become so tuned into the challenges and difficulties they face that they lose sight of why they are doing what they do. This is particularly natural in a work setting when a job you used to love can become something you loathe simply due to where you place the majority of your focus.
If you think this has happened to you in any aspect of your life, spend some time reflecting on why you ever got into the position of facing these particular difficulties. In most cases, this will reacquaint you with your deepest causes and values, reminding you of why (and sometimes how) you can overcome obstacles.
In other cases, you will realize that what you're doing no longer serves your needs. This is a useful realization too; it's the first step towards finding something that does suit you and can make you happy.
At this point in the list, you might find yourself wondering what on earth we mean by your spiritual power source. The key thought here is actually very simple and doesn't require any explicit religious commitments.
Rather, since we all have limited levels of strength, we need something that we can tap into in order to boost our power. While the above sources of support and positivity (e.g. friends and important causes) can certainly enhance your power, you'll arguably get even more from a spiritual source.
For some people, this may indeed be prayer or other religious activities. However, meditation and mindfulness exercises are also ways of plugging yourself into a spiritual power source.
There are also less conventional ways of connecting with spiritual power. For example, creative acts like painting, writing, and listening to music can all boost your resilience and help you move away from a pessimistic worldview.
If you have a negative outlook, you're likely attracted to negative words. Meanwhile, negative words themselves encourage pessimism and catastrophizing, so you get into a vicious cycle.
The most effective thing you can do here is to begin monitoring your verbal and writing expression more closely. Look for negatives and change them to positives. At first, you might only be able to make the words neutral, but even that is a move in the right direction.
For example, suppose you're writing in your journal about an upcoming event and you find yourself saying “They all hate me and I think they think I'm weird”. An improvement might be “I have some unique traits, and it might take some people a while to understand them”. Better yet might be “I can work harder to help my family understand me, and some of my least conventional traits are also my greatest strengths”.
Finally, remember that there's often a strong overlap between pessimism and close-mindedness. It's common to feel like you've already tried everything and that “nothing works”. To get away from a habit of catastrophizing, try to practice openness to new ideas and perspectives. You can do this both internally and externally. Internally, if you feel your mind wandering towards something unexpected, let it go there instead of shutting it down. You might just find a solution or come up with a great idea.
Meanwhile, when dealing with other people, be patient and hear them out. You might think you know better, but if you listen carefully you might discover that someone in your life has an ingenious new thought that could change your perspective in important and powerful ways. At worst, you'll lose a couple of minutes of your life. At best, your eyes may be opened to new ways to approach your life or work.