You get an email from your boss first thing Monday morning saying he’d like to meet with you soon. You immediately think, “that’s it, I’m getting fired.” Or perhaps you are not sure if you should take that new job offer because you’re worried you’ll end up in another miserable work situation. In both situations, you find yourself stuck going down the “rabbit holes” of all the ways these scenarios could go wrong. Does this sound familiar?
What is Worst Case Scenario Thinking?
I call this “worst case scenario thinking” and it’s incredibly common among anxious brains. Maybe you had one of these scenarios happen in the past, so of course you’re going to assume it’ll happen again. While I can’t promise that worst case scenarios won’t come true, I can tell you that in over 20 years experience as a therapist, rarely have I seen a person’s worst fears come true. And, in the rare case that their worst case scenario actually did come true, it wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as they anticipated.
Despite my reassurances, you may find yourself still struggling to make that decision, face that fear, or tolerate the uncertainty. I get it. It can be really difficult to challenge those negative thoughts. Having anxiety about the worst case scenario, also called catastrophizing, is our brain’s way of believing we’re keeping ourselves safe and preventing uncertainties from derailing us. However, the irony of catastrophizing is that it’s what makes our anxiety worse! Catastrophizing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the more anxiety you experience, the more you feel you need to “prepare” yourself for danger (i.e. the worst case scenario), which zaps your energy and leaves you with fewer resources to deal with this hypothetical danger.
How do I Stop Expecting Worst Case Scenarios?
There are several ways that you can start to challenge the negative thoughts and stop expecting worst case scenarios. I often tell my clients: changing your thoughts isn’t as simple as turning on or off a light switch; it takes time to teach your brain to do something differently. With practice, using some of the techniques I’ve included below, you’ll notice that you’ll slowly be able to handle the uncertainties that arise.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy I use to teach clients to challenge some of their negative thoughts. Let’s focus specifically on worst case scenario thinking. Remember that changing the negative thought patterns takes time! You may attempt some of these techniques that I’ll cover and say “I tried it and it didn’t work!” That’s because your brain is used to going down a specific path and it’ll take practice to carve out a new pathway.
Identify and Challenge Negative Thoughts:
- Start by becoming aware of when you are engaging in or having anxiety about worst case scenarios.
- Write down the negative thoughts that arise and examine them objectively.
- Ask yourself, "Is this thought based on evidence, or is it an exaggeration?"
- 99% of the time, there will be no concrete evidence to support this negative thought!
Reality Test Your Thoughts:
- Ask yourself whether the worst case scenario is the only possible outcome or if there are other, more likely outcomes.
- Sure, the worst case scenario is possible but is it likely? The answer is typically that it’s not likely to happen.
- Look for evidence that supports or contradicts your catastrophic thinking.
Cognitively Restructure Your Thoughts:
- Replace negative thoughts with more balanced and realistic ones. For example, you might reframe your thoughts in this manner: “Maybe my boss has a new project for me and she’s inviting me first thing Monday morning so that I can have the whole week to work on it.”
- Challenge cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing, by asking questions like, "What's the worst that could happen, and how likely is it?"
- In all seriousness, the worst case scenario isn’t as catastrophic as you think it will be.
Apply Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques:
- Practice mindfulness to stay in the present moment and reduce rumination about future catastrophes. Meditation is a great way to do this.
- Ground yourself by focusing on your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) when you feel your thoughts spiraling into worst case scenarios.
Consciously Incorporate Self-Compassion:
- Be kind and compassionate toward yourself. Remember that everyone has negative thoughts from time to time.
- Treat yourself as you would a friend who is going through a difficult time.
- What might you say to your friend to help them find calm and recenter if they were ruminating on something?
Problem-Solve Your Scenarios:
- If the worst case scenario thinking revolves around a specific problem, engage in problem-solving.
- Break the problem down into smaller, manageable steps and brainstorm solutions.
- If something is causing anxiety because it's a newer experience for you to encounter, gather information, resources, or perspectives from other people who have navigated that situation before.
- Oftentimes, building familiarity with how that situation can unfold will help you feel more capable and ready to handle it yourself.
Reset New, Realistic Expectations:
- Recognize that life is full of uncertainties, and not everything can be controlled or predicted.
- Focus on setting realistic expectations for yourself and your future.
Limit Your Rumination Time:
- Set aside specific times during the day to address your worries and worst case scenarios. I like to call these “worry hours.” Use a timer and a notepad!
- When those thoughts arise outside of those designated times, remind yourself that you will address them during your designated worry time, or jot it down quickly on a notepad that you have handy so you can come back to it later.
- The act of writing something down helps you to “release” that feeling, at least for the time being.
Attempt Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
- Practice relaxation techniques to reduce physical tension and anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation can help you become more aware of physical tension and learn to relax your muscles.
- YouTube has wonderful and free videos on this!
Seek Professional Help:
- If worst case scenario thinking is causing significant distress or interfering with your daily life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. They can provide tailored strategies and support.
Remember, thoughts aren’t always realistic; just because you have the thought that the worst case scenario will come true, it doesn’t mean that it will. Furthermore, you are much stronger and resilient than you think. You can handle whatever comes your way and you can always find support!
I’d love to hear what ways you have found to tackle worst case scenario thinking. Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on IG, @youngadulttherapist. Check out my website as well, www.ruthiekalai.com.