Catastrophic thinking is a term used to describe extreme worrying. It is the thought cycle we go through when we think about the worst possible outcome, and those thoughts make it hard to think about anything else.
This happened to me today. I have this article to write for you and slides to finish/polish for a very important webinar this afternoon. My thoughts were clear as I fired up my laptop, and I was excited about the twin tasks in front of me.
Then, my computer acted like it was walking through molasses in a snow storm. I won’t give you the technical details, but you have likely been there. I am talking worried-about-the-laptop slow. So slow, I started thinking about whether I would be able to finish my slides, and whether I would be able to run the webinar from my laptop.
As I worried about the situation, my thoughts and focus on the writing were diverted to my laptop. It’s funny that I planned to write an article about avoiding catastrophic thinking, and then did just that.
As humans, we sometimes fall into this trap. And as damaging as it can be personally, as leaders, our catastrophic thinking can create the same thing for the rest of our team. That is why I am writing about this today – to help you avoid (or at least short circuit) this thinking for yourself, and to help you in coaching others when they fall prey to it, too.
Here are my four suggestions for you.
Gain Some Perspective
When you find yourself catastrophizing about the worst possible outcome, ask yourself what the likelihood is of that outcome occurring. Put a percentage on that chance. Chances are the percentage is far less than 100%, which should give you a new perspective and more hope.
Have a Support System
When things are going badly, or you are worried that they might, have people you can call to support you. People who will listen to your concerns and provide you with some additional perspective. Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, recommends making a list of your most calm and sensible friends, and telling them you may phone them once in a while, as you sometimes feel out of control.
“The best way to gain perspective [on your worries] is to talk with someone else and put it outside you,” Blair said. “You don’t have to rush to a therapist… but it’s hard work. It takes a good season, a good three months, sometimes six months, to start to change a habit.”
Remember, you don’t need to deal with your fears and worries alone – and when you catch yourself in this thought cycle, you can reach out, if you have built this support system.
As a leader, you might be able to be that person to listen and provide perspective to a team member or the whole team, when they are engaging in catastrophic thinking.
Ask These Three Questions
I have long used a process that includes three helpful questions when I have been worried about something. The process is to ask the questions in order, and follow the suggestion based on your answer.
- Is it a problem? If no, let go of the worry. Why would you worry about it if the outcome you are worrying about isn’t really a problem? If it is a problem, ask the next question …
- Is it important? If the answer is no, let go of the worry. After all, why worry about something that isn’t an important problem? If, however, the answer is yes – it is both and problem and important, ask the final question …
- Can I change the outcome? If the answer here is no, let go of the worry. At this point, you have determined it is an important problem. But if you can’t influence the outcome at all, there is no logical reason to continue to worry about it. If you can change the outcome, or might be able to at least influence it, then do something to make the change.
Whether you have walked through the questions above or not, perhaps the best way to overcome catastrophic thinking is to do something. Beyond the actions suggested in this article, you can move past this negative and debilitating thought pattern by doing something to improve the situation, influence the outcome, reduce the impact of the worst-case scenario, or do something entirely different to divert your attention and improve your frame of mind.
If you are wondering, I took my own advice. The computer is working again, but while it was painfully slow, I looked for other possible solutions, thought about back up plans, and generally stopped the negative thought pattern.
Now that you have these tools in your personal toolbox, use them. Internal use will prepare to you to use them with others as a coach.