Stop Catastrophizing About Your Future. Try the Skill of Mental Imagery Instead

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Are you looking for ways to stop catastrophizing? If you’re super good at it, you’re most likely expecting the worst all the time. 

So, let’s talk about how to manage anxiety by interrupting catastrophizing.

But first, what do all these folks have in common? And what the heck are they doing? And what does it have to do with anxiety and performance? Okay, but back to catastrophizing

Adam Pearson tells the story of when he was an chef. He got to work with this super famous chef as a student. And he said, I was so honored, 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 go totally wrong. What if I boiled my consommé? I don’t know how to pronounce that, 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. Can you relate? Do you catastrophize?

Common Catastrophizing Thoughts

Here are some common ones. What if I’m rejected? If I fail this exam, I will never get the job I want. What if I feel so anxious that I mess everything up? If this relationship doesn’t work out, I’ll be alone forever. If I admit I don’t know something at work, they’ll think I’m stupid and fire me. What if I make a fool of myself?

Now when we visualize something happening in the future, our body creates actual physical changes right here in the present moment. If you look at the anxiety cycle, it’s the perception of danger that actually triggers the anxiety response. Worry is the fuel of generalized anxiety disorder. When it comes to worry, usually our brain gets stuck in a rut imagining all the terrible things that can happen to us.

In the workbook, write down some of your common catastrophizing thoughts, and then explore what it feels like in your body when you dwell on these thoughts. When you combine our brain’s super ability to bring to mind future events, but also its bias toward preventing dangers. It’s easy to see how our brain can get stuck in a loop of catastrophizing.

What Exactly Is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is the mental habit of expecting the worst to happen. It’s something our brain thinks is going to help, but it usually makes us anxious instead. So in this video, you’ll learn how to stop catastrophizing and how to replace all that negative thinking with a straightforward practice for creating success and decreasing anxiety through positive mental imagery.

Okay, let me give you an example for myself. I have worried a lot that my kids won’t want a relationship with me when they’re older, that I’m going to break them, or that they’ll resent me. And I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect as a mom. But then also the fact that I’m a therapist makes me think that they’ll judge me more, and then I see all these people talking about how their parents have messed up, and I just get scared and worried about my kids, because of some of my own hard experiences growing up.

And the more anxious I am as a mom, the harder it is to have fun, relaxing, bonding experiences. The more I might beat myself up over losing my temper. Or put pressure on my kids to be perfect or something. When we act out of fear, we often create the result that we fear the most. If you’re worried about a relationship, you might break up or push for commitment too quickly.

If you’re worried about what your boss thinks about you at work, maybe you start to resent him. If you’re worried about missing a shot in an important basketball game, you get so like hyper focused on it that your hands get all sweaty, and then you actually do miss the shot. In this situation, worrying about it really isn’t helping me.

What do I do instead? Trying not to think about something usually doesn’t work. Trying not to catastrophize doesn’t work. Your mind is a word machine. It’s like fertile soil. It’s going to grow something. And if you take a garden patch, and you fertilize it, and you till the soil, but you don’t plant anything, it’s going to fill with weeds.

But if you plant the crops you do want, they cover the ground, and they prevent a lot of weeds from growing.

Replacing A Catastrophizing Thought

If we want to stop catastrophizing, we have to replace it with something. The Avett brothers have a song that says when you run, make sure to run to something, not away from. You’ve got to replace your fears with the direction that you’re actually moving towards.

You have to aim for what you do want instead of what you don’t want. So instead of running away from a feared outcome and trying to protect myself from it by worrying about it, I’m going to run toward the outcome I want. Both in my actions and in my thoughts with my imagination skills. So we’ve got to catch ourselves catastrophizing, stop believing it, and redirect our attention to the question What will it look like when it all works out?

You shift your attention to visualizing yourself facing and solving problems. You shift your attention to pointing in the direction of your values. So, in my situation with my kids, I have to ask myself. What will it look like as we build up a resilient relationship? A resilient relationship isn’t free from errors.

It’s not perfect. It’s one where we make repairs when that connection is broken, where we relax and play together. I visualize them wanting to be connected with me and I channel my imagination on what it’ll feel like as we overcome situations together. Not just some like magical event where everything is magically fine.

Like I imagine myself facing the challenges with the grace that I want to.

What If It All Works Out?

Again, the theme of this is what if it all works out? Imagination is your brain’s superpower. It’s the root of worrying, but it’s also the source of hope and love and success. So, how can we use it to decrease anxiety and create the life we dream of.

It comes naturally to us to visualize all the awful outcomes we’re trying to prevent, but it’s much harder to visualize ourselves succeeding through trials. So, we can practice the skill of replacing catastrophizing with positive mental imagery. And we create the life we dream of while soothing our nervous system at the same time.

This actually decreases anxiety in the present moment. When we visualize a positive outcome, it creates a physical change in your body. There’s a ton of research on this. Research shows that stroke victims who visualize walking again have better balance and gait than stroke victims who don’t. Positive mental imagery can help athletes heal faster and perform better.

Other research shows that catastrophizing makes chronic pain worse and it physically slows healing in injured athletes. Professional athletes train in how to use mental imagery to overcome challenges and perform at their highest ability. Check out this clip of an Olympic biathlete discussing how he mentally prepares.

I know that at 10 seconds, I’ll hear the audible beeps, and that’s the trigger. I’m the bow, with the arrow drawn, waiting, and when that beep changes, that’s the release. And that’s the acceleration, and I’m the arrow, and I’m accelerating down the track. This is Adam Ondra, one of the world’s best climbers, rehearsing a route that no one else in the world could climb.

Before he was discovered, Jim Carrey wrote himself a check. I wrote myself a check for ten million dollars for acting services rendered, and I gave myself five years or three years, maybe. And I dated it Thanksgiving 1995. And I put it in my wallet, and I kept it there, and it deteriorated and stuff.

But then, just before Thanksgiving 1995, I found out that I was going to make 10 million on, I think it was Dumb and Dumber.

Building Competence

When mentally rehearsing a skill, the brain activates many of the same neural pathways that you use during the actual activity. This helps to strengthen the connections between the brain and the muscles, leading to improved motor skills and coordination.

It’s literally practicing it’s building competence. Positive imagery also helps us channel our attention during a task so that we can perform the way that we want to. Positive mental imagery also helps us reduce stress. So when you rehearse different scenarios and practice how you would respond to them, you improve your ability to react effectively in a real life situation.

Normally, when you face some new threat, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress hormones. And basically, in other words, new things can be scary. But when you watch a scenario in your mind, and you visualize it with a positive outcome, you visualize yourself overcoming those challenges, Your brain learns that it can handle it and it no longer sees that scenario as new or frightening, and that’s going to decrease your stress response and increase your confidence in that area.

Okay, check out this runner from BYU. He was racing at the national championship in steeplechase and he fell down. He was the previous champion and he was now 30 meters behind everyone. But he came back to win. Before the race, I thought about if I fall, what am I going to do? How am I going to respond?

Before the race, he mentally visualized this. He said, I decided I’d get up and continue. He said, I had a plan in place that if I fell, I would get up and I would work my way slowly to get back in the pack because a quick burst of energy afterwards to try and catch up right away might have burnt me out.

Okay, so this isn’t magical thinking. We’re not just pretending or visualizing some impossible thing. It’s problem solving from a place of love and action, not fear and immobilization. Visualizing yourself getting an A on a test is unlikely to increase your knowledge around that subject. It might decrease your anxiety, but it would possibly be more effective if you visualize yourself effectively studying and calmly recalling everything you did study.

And then actually studying. You don’t want to just imagine some magical outcome. You visualize yourself taking action toward the outcome. Okay. Whew! So that’s how this works. Mental rehearsal or positive mental imagery isn’t just for athletes. It can help all of us shift away from catastrophizing toward succeeding at the things we care about.

So, how do you do it practically? Take a moment in a quiet place. Choose a situation that you worry about. Describe that worry in 10 words or less, but be specific. I’m afraid that others will laugh at me. Now, get really clear on what you do want. Write about what it would look like if that challenge were overcome. 

What if it all works out? What skills would you develop? Who would help you? How will you recover when you stubble? Approach these challenges with a positive and determined mindset. And remind yourself, what are your ultimate sources of hope and strength? Is it your family? Is it God? Is it your values? In the horrors of the concentration camp, Viktor Frankl would bring to mind images of his wife and reuniting with her.

And as you write out this imagery, this visualization of when it all works out, focus on the actions, the things that you can control, not the things you can’t. See yourself living the life you desire. Create the mental picture and see yourself in it, doing it, and being in it in detail. Bring all the creative imagery necessary to see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, and taste it. Use all your senses to imagine this. And then, once you’ve got this visualization ready, this mental imagery, set aside time to repeat this. Reading it, listening to it, imagining it several times a day. Now, if it’s hard for you to meditate, like me, it is, you can write about it or draw it every day.

And when I say draw it, doodle it, right? I’m not talking about Leonardo da Vinci or anything. Make it physical and put it on paper. Even just doodling things activates that visual cortex in your brain and helps create more neural pathways of success. So just to summarize, you can learn to stop catastrophizing by asking yourself the question, what if it all works out?

What would that look like? How will I bring it about? And this will channel your amazing ability to visualize the future into helpful action to not only decrease anxiety, but to live the life you really care about. Okay, hope that’s helpful. Thank you.

Check out the course, Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days. 

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