One of the common traits of anxious people is that they tend to catastrophize events in their lives. For example, I might be worried that something I said to a co-worker might be construed as unprofessional and that might lead to me having a bad reputation on the job which might lead to me not being promoted, or even fired. I don't necessarily have any evidence to back this up, but I just feel like it is true. That is catastrophizing.
I was working with a client named Kim (not her real name) recently. She rated her anxiety at work at about a 10 out of 10 - in other words very high. Kim had a run in with a co-worker that had resulted in her being called into the human resources office. Ever since that time, she was highly anxious and afraid of any interaction with her co-worker. She avoided this individual, and any possible conflict, at all costs. She felt deep shame about being reprimanded. This was a woman who had twenty years of exemplary service with the company, but this one blemish seemed to define her view of herself.
To help Kim learn to decrease her catastrophizing, I asked her a question, "What are you afraid will happen?" She replied, that she was afraid of getting into a conflict with her co-worker. I asked her to write that fear on a piece of paper. Then I asked her a second question, "If you get into a conflict, what will happen?" She said she might get angry. I had her write this down. To each of her responses, I asked her the same question, "If that happens, then what?"
Her responses looked something like this:
I will get into a conflict
I might get angry
I might cry or cuss
I will be embarrassed and or written up
I will get fired
I will lose my house
I will not be able to support my family
I will feel like a failure
I won't be able to face anyone
By writing out her thoughts, Kim was able to see why the possibility of getting into a conflict had such a paralyzing effect on her. When we got to the end of the list, I asked Kim a third question, "What do you think the chances are that these series of events will happen?" She indicated that she thought there was only a 10% chance it would actually go down that way. In other words, there was a 90% chance it would not happen. So I asked her a final question, can you live with those odds? Kim felt pretty good about her odds, and was able to feel her anxiety and catastrophizing diminish.
This technique can be really helpful if you find yourself catastrophizing. It is important to write down your thoughts. You already have enough noise in your head when you are anxious, you don't want to add any more to it. And there is something about seeing your thoughts written out that makes them so much clearer.
So, next time you start feeling anxious and catastrophizing, try asking yourself the following:
What are you worried about?
If that happens, then what?
What are the odds of that happening?
Can you live with that?