Catastrophizing: How to Handle Worst-Case Scenario Thinking

By Adam J. Pearson

Introduction: An Embarrassing Story from Culinary School

When I was in culinary school, I took a course in Advanced Small-Quantity Cooking with a true master Chef. Chef Buttler was so good that he worked as an examiner of the top Chefs in Canada who wanted to attain the exalted rank of Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC), a big deal in the culinary community. I was so honoured to get to study with a man with so much tremendous experience and knowledge about the art of cooking. And I was also totally freaked out.

Here was my issue. I would be there in the kitchen suited up in my crisp, white Chef coat, preparing the recipes for the day’s lesson, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the worst-case scenarios that could happen. I couldn’t stop imagining how things could totally go wrong. What if I boiled my consommé and it went all cloudy? What if I burned or undercooked my chicken? What if I screwed up my sole filleting and had no nice fillets to present?

All of this what-if thinking left me feeling totally anxious. And the more anxious I became, the more mistakes I made. The more mistakes I made, the more anxious I became. And things just kept getting worse. It was like a snowball made of poop that kept getting bigger the further it rolled down the hill of imagined worst-case scenarios.

One day, Chef Buttler took me aside and said: “Adam, your culinary knowledge is excellent. Your skills are at the top of the class. But you’re driving yourself crazy. I want you to really see this because it is the one thing that’s holding you back from being the best Chef you can be: You’re so worried about making a mistake that you end up making a lot of mistakes.”

Wow. That sounded so simple, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. How the heck did I miss that? The angsty teenager in me shouted “DUH!” from somewhere in the back of my mind. But he was totally right. All of this catastrophic thinking wasn’t doing me any good. It was turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy; I would imagine “what if this horrible catastrophe happened?” and then I would unintentionally make it happen. I’d make my prophecy come true without even trying to do so. How hilariously ironic.

“Wow… thank you, Chef. You just blew my mind. I’ll work on this,” I told him, and I went back to my station. In the subsequent weeks, I did work on it. I practiced relaxing into the task at hand and trusting my skills. And the more I did this, the fewer mistakes I started to make. I started to obsess less over the details of the recipes and trust the flavours of the dish to tell me what the dish needed, whether more seasoning, more sweetness, or more acidity, for example. The more I trusted, relaxed, and encouraged myself, the easier and more relaxing cooking became.

Later on, Chef Buttler told me: “Adam, you used to cook like a nervous wreck, but now you flow like a true Chef, totally at peace. I knew you could do it.”

Trust me, if someone as worst-case scenario-obsessed as me could overcome my catastrophizing, you can too. In this article, I’ll share the method I now use to consciously handle worst-case scenario thinking. Hopefully, it will help you to avoid making some of the silly mistakes that I made when I was making my dreams of catastrophes come true.

What is Catastrophizing?

Before we get to the practical method, let’s make sure we understand the issue. What is catastrophizing anyway? Here’s a simple definition:

Catastrophizing is the tendency to obsess over worst-case scenarios and exaggerate how bad things will be if these imagined catastrophes come true.

Catastrophizing is a form of what psychologists call ruminating, or obsessively thinking about negative scenarios. We can ruminate both about past situations where things went badly and about negative “what if” scenarios that we imagine could happen in the future.

Why do we do this anyway? Well, one reason is that trying to learn lessons from past mistakes and trying to foresee future issues can both be helpful. There is some value in these ways of thinking when they are kept realistic. Problems begin to arise, however, when we totally amp up the ruminating to extreme degrees. We start to exaggerate the likelihood of the imagined catastrophes and focus on them so much that we can ironically end up sabotaging ourselves by making them come true.

This is exactly what I did back in that story from culinary school; I obsessed and worried so much about making mistakes that I ended up making a lot of mistakes. All of that energy I could have poured into focusing on the task at hand and just flowing with it was diverted into obsessive worrying. So, I was actually focusing less on what I was doing than on what could go wrong in the future. And this lack of focus ironically made me make more mistakes. This is how catastrophizing can turn into self-sabotage.

So, while it is good to be prepared for potential future challenges, obsessing over potential catastrophes actually tends to hurt rather than help our performance. What, then can we do about ruminating? How can we handle it in an emotionally intelligent and rational way?

How to Lovingly Handle Worst-Case Scenario Thinking

Lucky for us, psychologists have done a great deal of research on ruminating and catastrophizing. They have come up with some valuable insights and practical tools to help us with these things. In addition, some of what the great scholar Huston Smith called the world’s great “Wisdom Traditions,” such as Zen Buddhism, and the Christian practice of loving-forgiveness also provide valuable insights that can help us here. The method I’m going to present to you is an integral combination of the wisdom from both the Western scientific methods and the Eastern and Western internal methods. It’s a culmination of best practices.

Specifically, I am drawing here on the above sources along with the psychological work work of Dr. Alice Boyes, Dr. Robert L Leahy, Dr. Brene Brown, Dr. John M Grohol, and my dear friend Eliot Bissey’s integration of strategies from Dr. Van Tharp and Denise Shull among others.

You’ve probably noticed that catastrophizing involves obsessing over possible future scenarios; as such, it takes us totally out of the now where we are actually doing what we need to do. The way we wisely handle it will then need to compensate for that by centering us in the present. Catastrophizing also involves visualizing failure instead of visualizing success, and we’re going to address that as well. Finally, at the heart of catastrophizing, there is a deep sense of fear, which we’re going to counter that with gratitude and strong love. In this way, our approach is going to systematically undo catastrophizing from within. And that’s why it’s going to work.

So, let’s get to it. To begin, I’ll break down the steps one at a time and then I’ll bring them all together. When you have something you need to do and you find yourself obsessing over negative what-ifs, here’s a research-supported strategy that you can roll out for support.

Step 1: Notice what’s going on in your mind, body, and feelings.

This first step involves checking in with our ‘contexts of consciousness.‘ This is a fancy way of saying notice what’s going on in your body, your feelings, and your mind. What does this mean? It means look inward for a moment and:

  • Check your mental context to see what thoughts are coming up in you.
  • Check your physical context to see what physical sensations you’re feeling. Are you tired? Are you hungry?
  • Check your emotional context to see what emotions are coming up for you. Is there fear, resistance, worry, or anxiety? Are there other things going on apart from the obsessing over what-if scenarios? Are you maybe upset at someone, for example?
  • Check for shadow charges. Can you notice a theme in the types of situations that seem to bring out the catastrophizing in you? If there’s a pattern that triggers you, that’s worth looking at.

Step 2: Forgive yourself for catastrophizing and meet yourself with love instead.

This step may sound cheesy at first, but it’s not. It’s powerful and backed up not only by the Wisdom Traditions but also by modern psychological research on self-care and empathy. Forgive yourself for obsessing over what-if scenarios. See that you only do this out of a completely innocent wish to cope, prevent pain, and avoid avoidable future issues. You’re not bad and there’s nothing wrong with you. If any resistance comes up at this point, meet it with love too, just like a parent meets a scared and crying child. Love it without trying to change it. Forgive yourself and strengthen yourself with love.

If any of my more macho readers are thinking “meet resistance with love? That doesn’t sound very manly…” I’d like to point out that loving of this kind is hardcore. It takes strength in men and women alike because it involves moving towards our resistance and painful thinking and feeling. That’s a strong act because doing that is courageous; escapism and numbing are the easy way out.. A way to make this kind of love more accessible for some men might be to picture it as the total love of a father for his children, a love that embraces them no matter what.

If you still don’t think love and forgiveness are expressions of strength, think of the case of Robert Rule, the father of Linda Jane Rule, who was one of the 49 women killed by serial killer Gary Ridgeway – the Green River Killer. At Ridgeway’s 2003 sentencing, the families of the victims had the opportunity to speak out and address Ridgeway directly.

Understandably, many were angry and lashed out at Ridgway for the unimaginable grief he had put them through. As Ridgway stonily listened to the family members express their grief and anger, one person came up and said something unexpected. When the time came for Robert Rule, the father of teenage victim Linda Jane Rule, to speak, Ridgway finally showed a glimpse of remorse.

Rule’s words to Ridgway were: “Mr. Ridgway . . . there are people here that hate you. I’m not one of them. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that’s to forgive. You are forgiven, sir.” These words brought Ridgway to tears.

If that’s not strength, I don’t know what is. So, to summarize step 2, after you’ve taken stock of your feelings, thoughts, and body sensations, forgive yourself for the worrying and catastrophizing and meet yourself with empowering love and forgiveness instead of judgment. Like a boss.

Step 3: Visualize and relive past successes you’ve had.

Remember how I said that catastrophizing involves an attitude of visualizing future failures? This next step is how we counter that experientially. Think of some past situations in which you had to do things like what you have to do right now and you succeeded. If you’re faced with something totally new, visualize any task at all at which you have succeeded in the past. It doesn’t matter how small or apparently trivial this past success was; any memory of success of any kind will work, although past successes that mean more to you make more powerful choices.

Take a moment to visualize that memory as strongly as possible as if you were re-experiencing it. What do you see, hear, feel? Imagine all those details vividly in your mind. Relive that feeling and the confidence and power you felt when you triumphed. You did it then and you can do it again. Let the visualizing of past success give you confidence and energize you. You can do this. You have good reason to visualize future success. Let this sink in.

Step 4: Be grateful for the opportunity to grow and practice.

At the heart of catastrophizing, there is a ton of fear. Fear of failure and fear of pain are the dark core of this way of thinking when it gets exaggerated into irrationality. We already started to meet that fear with love and forgiveness. Now we’re going to go a step further and counter it with gratitude.

You’ve got a challenge in front of you, you’ve got something to do. Great! How wonderful that you get a chance to grow into a stronger, more capable version of yourself. How wonderful that you get to apply your skills and knowledge. How wonderful that you have the qualities that enable you  to do this and that you’ve triumphed on the long, sweeping journey that brought you here. You faced all kinds of trials and obstacles and you made it to this point. And now you have a chance to triumph again. Let some gratitude arise in response to these considerations and permeate your attitude. The blunt truth is that we can set what-ifs aside and tackle this thing. We can get in there and show them what we’re made of. Let’s rock’n roll.

Step 5: Totally center your attention in the now; zoom into the present moment.

I mentioned before that catastrophizing or ‘catastrophic thinking‘ involves hyperfocusing on the future. It involves decentering ourselves out of the present and imagining horrible future outcomes. This is where we counter that tendency. Now that you’ve fortified yourself with love and gratitude, zoom your attention into the present moment. Be aware of all your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, of what you are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling here and now. Zoom in on the now and ground your attention here like a cat watching a mouse hole with 100% alertness for the mouse to emerge. Center yourself in the now and be ready to pounce.

Step 6: Breathe and relax into your body. 

This step is a continuation of the last one, but it has an additional purpose. Center your attention on your breath. Using your breath to center you will not only help you ground yourself in the present, but will also start to relax you. This practice will help you start to counter the stress that catastrophizing can evoke with relaxation. We want to relax so we can flow into action as efficiently as possible. As you breathe in and out, feel into your body consciously. Relax any tension you find. Meet any and all unpleasant emotions and resistance that come up with love instead of judgment as we practiced before. Use your positive and caring self-talk here if it’s helpful. For instance, you can reassure yourself that: “I’m okay, I’m capable. I’ve got this. I can relax and do my thing.” You can even talk to yourself in second-person language if that helps, like “Hey, it really is okay. You’re doing really well. You’ve got this!” If you don’t connect with the self-talk language, just focus on your breath and ground yourself in the now. That simple act is powerful enough.

Step 7: Flow into the action.

Now everything is in place. We’ve strengthened ourselves with love, lovingly released our resistance with forgiveness, visualized success, changed our state of mind to a positive state with gratitude, and relaxed with mindfulness of the breath. Now we’re ready to roll.

Drop all the unnecessary thinking and totally center yourself in the present. Now flow into action. Do what you need to do with a mind totally centered in the now. Be so intensely focused and centered that you become what you’re doing, like a Zen archer who is so focused that she becomes the act of releasing the arrow perfectly into the bull’s eye of her target. Focus yourself so intensely that everything else fades out. There is nothing in the universe but this action and you are flowing into it. You can relax, you can flow. You can do it and you will do it. You’ve configured your entire psychological state to empower you to flow. Now you just have to do it. You’re a formidable lion and it’s time to pounce, gracefully and without hesitation.

Summary of the Method

Now that you’ve understood and mastered all the individual steps, here’s a brief summary of them that you can turn to when you need them.

The 7 Steps for How to Lovingly Handle Castrophizing:
1. Notice what’s going on in your mind, body, and feelings.
2. Forgive yourself for worrying and meet yourself with love instead.
3. Visualize and relive past successes you’ve had.
4. Be grateful for the opportunity to grow and practice.
5. Totally center your attention in the now; zoom in on the present moment.
6. Breathe and relax into your body.
7. Flow into the action.

Conclusion: Empowering Yourself With A Strategy That Works

As you can see, this method is systematic. It addresses all of the problematic components of catastrophizing and offers constructive alternatives that work in synergy to propel you into flowing into action. It’s totally practical; I know that, because I use it. What I did back in culinary school was simply a less systematic version of this and it’s still how I approach present challenges today. I also take comfort in knowing that this method, while it seems so simple, actually integrates both a tremendous amount of powerful and reputable psychological research and some of the most enduring and functional techniques from the world’s great Wisdom Traditions. Science and spiritual wisdom are integrated into it. And practicing it requires no belief in any particular tradition, only a willingness to empower yourself. You are willing, which is why you bothered to read all of this. And you will triumph. I believe in you. Now go rock n’roll, empowered with a strategy that works.

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