Correcting Worry Thoughts

Correcting Worry Thoughts

Imagine that you were asked to cross a narrow bridge that was 1 foot above the ground. Would you feel confident about that task? Now change the situation and make it 50 feet above the ground. Then 100 feet. Would that change how you feel from the original task?

Most of us would feel various levels of fear proportional to the increased distance, however the task is still the same. The change in height can increase our perception of danger if we were to stumble. However, the height does not necessarily increase our likelihood to fall.

This type of thinking has been evolutionarily helpful in order for us to insure survival and anticipate true danger. Now take away the threat of falling, and replace it with the worry of a friend’s rejection, anxiety of getting fired from a job, or the fear of giving a presentation at work or school. The brain may react with the same response, however there is not a true threat to one’s life.

There are endless opportunities for a person to overestimate the threat of a situation and underestimate how effectively they would respond. However, that does not make the perception accurate.

Furthermore, it can leave a person feeling really stressed and cause secondary problems, such as lack of sleep, interpersonal effects and physical discomfort/symptoms.

In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, we call this type of thinking mistake, catastrophizing. It happens when one overestimates a threat of danger that the worst case scenario will happen. It also can be compounded when a person simultaneously underestimates their own coping skills. This then leads to a heightened emotion of fear, more commonly known as anxiety and worry.

So what can a person do? Here are some ideas of how to attend to catastrophic thinking mistakes:

  • Use mindfulness to slow down and ask yourself, “What am I thinking is the worst that will happen in this situation?” Maybe even keep a journal of any thoughts that routinely come up. This will track if there is a particular thinking mistake pattern that is framing otherwise innocuous situations as dangerous.
  • Then check the facts! It is helpful to gather evidence to evaluate what is the real probability of danger. Also it is important to ask yourself what ways you are underestimating the ability to cope with possible negative outcomes.
  • Ask yourself, “How do people who do not worry about the situation think about it?”
  • Do a cost-benefit analysis of your worry thoughts. What are the advantages of worrying about this issue? What is it costing you by worrying about it?
  • Disempower the fear! Use your rational mind, and think of the worst case scenario and imagine how you could possibly survive the problem.  Work on a plan that utilizes your own resources and the support of friends/loved ones in order to minimize the effects.

No one likes the feeling of worry that comes with catastrophic thinking and it can be really difficult to change.  Please be kind and patient with yourself.  It takes time for us humans to change our patterns of thinking.  Therefore, it can be beneficial to get the additional help of a trained clinician to support you in this process.

Authored by:  Alison Trenk, MA, LCSW