Catastrophising: sorting fact from fiction

For better or for worse, the power of imagination is incredible. We can create a catastrophic story so compelling that we convince ourselves we’ve written a factual autobiography instead of a fictional novel. When it’s done, we drop ourselves into the devastating starring role. We then mentally suffer the foregone conclusions as if they’re 100% real.

Picture of a person falling through a hole into the darkness. Text below says "Catastrophising: When I forget that I wrote the story and fall into it instead".

Cognitive distortion

Unfortunately, this kind of unhelpful story (or “cognitive distortion“) only adds to our pain. At the same time as it magnifies threats, it also shrinks our sense of strength and our feeling of being able to survive and cope. In addition, the story can feel incredibly urgent, as if we must take action NOW. Yet resisting or fighting with it is like pouring further fuel on the flames of anxiety.

Why we suffer

When we catastrophise, our story is not supported by the evidence of our senses – or even common sense. Catastrophising confuses possibility and probability. Our minds can imagine literally anything at all, but that doesn’t make those outcomes any more real or likely.

However, if we are getting pulled towards catastrophic stories, it’s quite possible that we have gone through or are currently experiencing a period of high stress, physical pain or mental suffering. It’s important to first acknowledge and address those needs with conscious self-compassion.

Feeling terrified of the story I’m telling myself (“emotional reasoning“) is not evidence that it’s true, either. It’s merely a sign that I am a creative person who can generate stories that are extremely convincing. Regrettably, the stories can be so persuasive that I may fall into the habit of believing them without question.

Our nervous system does a great job of protecting us from danger. However, it can’t tell the difference between reality (actual danger) and imagination (our story). It therefore tries to protect us by fighting anything it perceives as danger, just to be on the “safe” side. This can be the beginning of the anxiety spiral.

Who wrote the story and is it true?

There is power in recalling and recognising that I am the author of the catastrophic story. As the author, I can notice the ways that the story is not based in reality and choose to tell a different, more realistic story. In fact, catastrophising is only a story of exaggerated danger and risk that I have learned to tell myself. It continues because it’s had payoffs in the past (like the extreme relief when the feared event does not occur) but what a cost it extracts in return!

After noticing who wrote the story, it can then be helpful to write down the bare facts surrounding the feared event, as a scientist or a journalist might be required to. Notice where the facts end and the crossover to the story begins. (Hint – it usually starts with the words “what if”). This act alone can start to undo the spell that we’ve cast on ourselves, bringing us back to reality.

Sometimes though, we need help to notice where we’ve come unstuck from the facts. If you’re a fellow creative story-teller who needs help with this, please get in touch.

woman engrossed in reading a story.
Photo by Min An on