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When and How to Challenge Your Thoughts

Have you ever had the experience of going along, maybe not having the best day, but handling it, then something happens and your thoughts take you down a rabbit hole of things getting worse and worse until you feel anxious, defeated, and possibly paralyzed?

This is called catastrophizing. It happens to all of us sometimes.

It tends to happen more easily when we already have some stressful things going on in our lives, say, like the last year or two, and can spiral out of control if we aren't careful.

Some examples of catastrophic thought spirals:

  • My company got bought out. I am probably going to lose my job, and won't be able to pay my mortgage, and will lose my house.

  • I burnt dinner. Now we have nothing to eat, everyone will be mad at me, and I am terrible.

  • I sneezed. It's probably covid, and I'm going to die on a vent.

  • I had an argument with my best friend. Now they are never going to speak to me again, no one will ever understand me the way they do, and I'll die lonely.

Notice how each successive thought gets progressively more dire. You did not decide to have these thoughts- they just happened one after the other. This is called associative thinking and is almost always unconscious, meaning we aren't even aware that we are doing it.

Associative thinking happens all the time and isn't always negative. We see a car, we think about going somewhere, or where we have been before, or what kind of car we wish we had.

Associative thinking also helps us connect seemingly unrelated ideas and come up with new ideas and innovations.

What we need to watch out for is when associative thinking turns catastrophic. Any time our thoughts follow the same pattern, it strengthens those neural pathways. In other words, catastrophic thinking can become a habit. Many of my clients report that they have trouble falling asleep because they can’t turn off their thoughts.

Research has shown that people that have a tendency towards catastrophic thinking also feel physical pain more easily. Honestly, from all that I have read and experienced, you can’t separate the mind, body, and emotions. They all inform each other. Catastrophic thinking is also linked to depression and fatigue.

So what to do?

Thankfully, it is in our power to redirect our thoughts, and there are ways to change our neurotransmitter cascade from negative to positive.

Here are three pattern interrupts:

1. Take a reality check. Say out loud or write down your catastrophic thought stream. Then compassionately challenge them. Notice that I am using the third person in my responses to myself. This helps gain distance, and therefore gain perspective, from the uncomfortable feelings. Let’s take an example from above:

  • I burnt dinner. Now we have nothing to eat, everyone will be mad at me, and I am terrible.

    • Yes, you burnt dinner. It was an accident, and you didn’t do it on purpose.

    • If you truly don’t have anything else to eat, you can order pizza to go out. It’s ok.

    • If you explain that, it’s most likely that everyone will understand, and even reassure you.

    • You are not terrible. You made a mistake, just like we all do sometimes.

2. Use your body to interrupt your brain. Download my Hands on Heart Breath pdf to learn how to increase your oxytocin (reassurance hormone) and crease your cortisol (stress hormone).

3. Let go of physical tension. I recorded an mp4 audio file guided full-body relaxation for you to use before sleep to any time you find yourself unable to break free from uncomfortable thoughts. Included is a checklist of things that may help you set up for a good night’s sleep.

Just like any other skill, redirecting your thoughts takes practice. I assure you that it can be done.


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