“Oh no, I’ve blown it AGAIN!!” – Ponderings on Catastrophic Thinking

So, 18 days into this New Year, how’s it going?  If you made any New Year Resolutions (as opposed to Solutions), then I suspect you may have already blown them and totally given up on the initial resolution.  That diet, which was going to get you your dream body, isn’t working out at all now; you’re back smoking the cigarettes; ‘dry-January’ is getting rather wet; and as for that new gym membership – well the card is at least being put to good use!

gym card swiss roll


Joking with my friend Malcolm the other day, I said I could easily win a diamond-encrusted platinum medal in Catastrophic Thinking, if such a thing existed.  So what exactly is it, and how can we begin to change this potentially very damaging thought process?

Catastrophic Thinking (CT), also referred to as ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, is when someone takes a simple occurrence / event / experience that is deemed to have gone wrong, and blow it out of all proportion.  The classic example is when someone eats a large slice of chocolate fudge cake smothered in double cream, while being on a ‘diet’.  The CT way of thinking will probably go something like this…

“Oh well, now I’ve eaten that, I may as well go on and have that stuffed-crust pizza for

tea, and finish drinking that whole bottle of wine, seeing as I’ve totally blown the diet

already.  I’m useless. I’ll never be able to lose this weight.  I hate myself.”


Or maybe you’ve started at a new gym, and you’ve missed just one training session.  The old CT pattern starts up again…

“There, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep to this schedule.  I’ll never be fit and healthy.

There’s no point going back this week, I’ll start again on Monday.”


Well, ‘Monday’ is here!  So what can we do to help avoid or lessen the impact of the CT way of thinking?

Perspective – CT by its very nature takes things out of perspective.  It will always turn a drama into a crisis.  So firstly, we need to be on the lookout for the start of CT.  It will start in our mind with our thinking, you know, that annoying negative head-chatter.  Once we’ve spotted it, we need to take a reality check and seek to find a correct perspective.

I find that journaling really helps me to get all the negative stuff out of my head and down on to paper.  Then I can see more clearly just what is going on.  What REALLY happened, not just what I think / assume happened.  How have I reacted?  Was it fair?  Is there anything else going on, either currently or in the past, that is affecting how I see the situation?

Talking the situation through with a friend can also help – they will be looking in from the outside, and be better placed to see things rationally and from a good perspective.

Learn from it – a failure is only a failure if we don’t learn from it.  After you have worked through what happened, establish what action you will take in the future.  Decide what you can and can’t change.  What you can’t change or control, you will need to let go of.  What you CAN change however (and there will usually be more than you think!) becomes the foundation of your learning.  Are there any plans, structures, alternatives that you can set in place to help you in a similar situation when it occurs?  Look for any repetitive behaviour and habits.  Is there a particular place or person which sets off your CT?  When you have identified the issue, you can then set about making changes.  When you’ve worked out an alternative reaction, practice it as much as possible. Rehearse what you would say in the situation; go through your actions and reactions – acting out the scene.  Then when it does happen again, you won’t need to think about it, it will become second nature.

Think on GOOD things – our thoughts, good and bad, affect the way our body responds.  We can affect which hormones are released at what times, and can drastically alter our physiology. A great book on this subject is ‘Who Switched Off My Brain’, written by Dr Caroline Leaf (www.drleaf.net).  She has been researching the science of thought since 1985.  Dr Leaf talks about how our brain makes up specific pathways depending on our thoughts, and how these pathways then cause our body to react.  Thankfully these pathways CAN be changed when we consciously start thinking differently.  Over the next few blogs I’ll start to unpack some of the issues in more detail.

Exercise – as an Exercise Specialist, I can’t ignore the benefits of exercise when it comes to CT.  The trick is to find something you enjoy which increases your heart rate, and then to keep doing it regularly.  When we increase our heart rate, it increases the blood flow to our brain and organs.  This then increases their supply of oxygen.  Exercise helps to generate new brain cells and stimulates the production and release of BDNF (neuronal growth factor), which is an important part in changing the way we think (pg 139 ‘Who Switched Off My Brain?’).


I trust this article has given you some ideas of where to start in changing Catastrophic Thinking – I’ll unpack each point further in future blog articles, so keep coming back!

As I’m finding out, life is much better and a whole lot easier when we think and see things clearly for what they are.  We save ourselves a lot of stress… but that’s another blog in itself!!