Stopping the downward spiral

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Sometimes it’s hard to feel optimistic, let alone resilient. But when we focus on the worst-case scenario, negative thoughts start to spiral in our minds. These are not only damaging to the way we feel, but they stop us from taking purposeful and appropriate action to make things better.

It goes a bit like this:
“So many people are losing their job right now. I’m going to lose my job. I won’t be able to pay my rent. I’ll be homeless, hungry and living on the streets.”

See the downward spiral?

It’s actually human nature to do this and there’s a scientific name for it: catastrophizing1.

We can all catastrophize from time to time. See it as a thinking style where little things turn into big things and big things turn into, well a catastrophe.

In fact, there are three different ways to catastrophize2:

  1. Vortex — where your mind invents a very bad story which gets worse and worse resulting in your worst fear being realized…such as becoming homeless.
  2. Target Practice — you fixate on different unconnected negative scenarios until eventually you become convinced that one of these realities will come true.
  3. Shark Attack — the same thoughts just go round and round in your mind and you can’t shake them.

Many of us don’t realize we’re doing it. Our brains react to these negative imaginings as if they’re real life — our hearts start racing, our anxiety levels spike. And because we’re in survival mode, our focus narrows, which prevents us from thinking rationally about the situation1.

But you can stop this.

How? With the “un-doing effect”. This is a process3 where you induce positive emotion by thinking about the best-possible scenario. While this may sound a little counter intuitive, nurturing happy thoughts (and a lot of them) can snap you out of doom-mode and help you take control of the situation.

It takes a little practice, though. And you really have to go for it. (It’s just easier to believe the negative than the positive, right?)  Go wild with your imagination and invent the best-possible scenario.

This shouldn’t take you back to your previous reality, but instead transport you to a whole new world. It should make you feel different. It might make you laugh and it’s OK to be 100% preposterous. Something like this:

  • I lose my job so I buy a lottery ticket on a whim. I win the lottery. I’m a multi-millionaire.
  • I can’t afford my rent. A mysterious person hears about this and sends me a check. The check is more money than I could have dreamed of. I buy my own house on a beach island with a private jet.

Once you’ve done that, enjoy the silliness and positive emotions for a moment. Now you’ll feel calmer and ready to consider the most likely outcome — and draw up a plan to deal with that.

Like we said, this takes practice so give it a try — you’ll be surprised how much it can help. 

So, get out a pen and paper and get ready to write this down.

The five steps to prevent catastrophizing:

  1. Describe the situation — break down what’s caused you to catastrophize
  2. Worst possible outcome — list all the negative emotions and fears going around in your head
  3. Best possible outcome — induce a positive emotion by outlining the best possible outcome. This positive emotion has an “undoing effect” on your fear. Positive emotions might include joy, gratitude, a sense of fun or silliness, hope.
  4. Most probable outcome — think realistically to get yourself back on track
  5. Plan for most probable — make this a reality by putting a plan together


Download this template to see the five steps you can take to prevent your negative thoughts spiraling.

1"What is Catastrophizing? Cognitive Distortions", January 10, 2013, Psychology Today
2"4 things to remember the next time you’re spiraling", Headspace
3"The Undoing Effect of Positive Emotions", July 1, 2011, National Institutes of Health

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