Catastrophic Thinking

Rational Versus Catastrophic Thinking

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the difference between rational and catastrophic thinking.
  • Learn about the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to managing these types of thoughts.
  • Explore the effects of stress and anxiety on the body and mind.

One evening a Cherokee grandfather is sitting with his grandson around the campfire. The grandson says, “Grandpa, inside me there are two wolves fighting. One is full of anger, envy, false pride, guilt, resentment, ego…the other wolf is full of joy, peace, love, hope, faith, humility, kindness, and generosity.”

The grandfather sighs. “Yes, I know these wolves. The same fight is going on inside every human being.”

The grandson looks confused. “Really Grandpa? Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee thought a moment and smiled. “The one you feed.”

You might believe that reality is completely objective, existing independently of the mind. The parable of the old Cherokee suggests that the emotions and passions that develop inside us are not simply reactions to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Instead, they are what we actively choose to cultivate.

Rational versus Catastrophic Thinking

Traditional cognitive therapy assumes that rational, logical thinking is most adaptive. Like a scientist, the individual is encouraged to gather data, form hypotheses, then systematically test their hypotheses. By no means should the individual come to any firm conclusion in advance of the evidence. In contrast, catastrophic what-if thinking results in extreme anxiety, even panic attacks.

In fact, if you can begin to treat your thoughts and feelings as hypotheses or opinion, rather than facts, you have already changed your relationship with anxiety. You have become more open to alternative explanations, and have you embraced evidence as the necessary tool to justify these explanations. Only after an assumption is supported by evidence does it acquire the status of a belief that supports an emotional response and guide human action. Until then, it’s best to reserve judgment, best to be skeptical, best to be somewhat cautious before granting to any proposition your belief.

A cardinal example of this comes from people who have experienced some sudden stressful event in their lives. Acute stress dumps huge amounts of cortisol and epinephrine into your body in preparation for the flight or fight response. Cortisol increases your arousal and alertness. You begin to experience the somatic symptoms of anxiety in your body. You begin to scan the environment for threat. You may have a feeling of impending doom. That continues for days, until the stress hormones can be processed out of your system.

Intellectually, you know there’s no real threat, but your body is telling you’re anxious. I ask people, “Are you somebody who believes everything you read?” They shake their head. “Then don’t be someone who believes everything you feel. Just because your body is telling you there’s a threat out doesn’t mean it’s true.” Any time you go through something stressful, your arousal and alertness increase, and you are predisposed to find explanations, which may be mistaken.

Catastrophic thoughts are the very opposite of scientific thinking. Whereas science begins with no preconceived notions, catastrophic thinking begins with the assumption that the worst has already happened, and goes from there. What if your boss fires you for missing work? This assumes your boss has fired you. What if your car has a flat tire on the drive home? This assumes you’ve had a flat. What if your spouse decides that your anxiety has made your marriage more trouble than its worth? This assumes your spouse has made such a decision. You can probably think of hundreds more.

All such questions position the absolute worst that can be imagined as a problem for you to solve. Whereas science gives up on hypotheses that have been rejected by the evidence, catastrophic thinking is considered to be a form of rumination. The questions asked in the what-if phraseology have no real solution. Nevertheless, these fantasy scenarios are detected as realistic threats, question to which the mind returns again and again, apparently in the service of safety, as a means of trying to prepare for every eventuality. Whereas science strives to make realistic predictions, catastrophic scenarios are judged to be much more probable than they really are. Sometimes catastrophic thoughts are given complete conviction.

Catastrophic thoughts often occur in chains. A complete catastrophic chain looks like this: What if I fail my final exam and don’t finish college and miss out on getting a job and can’t earn a living and disappoint my parents and can’t get married and can’t have kids and end up being single and homeless? Notice that the catastrophic chain has all the charm of a run-on sentence. Clearly, there’s a lot resting on the exam. Who could concentrate given such high stakes?

Catastrophic thoughts represent a kind of temporary delusion, a deep dive into an alternate reality, another time stream that forks away from the real world at the point of the what-if thought. These alternate realities unfold in imagination, during which they have all the power of real world events, and are suffered just like real world events. Throughout this website, I refer to this tendency to give complete conviction to catastrophic thoughts as “going down the rabbit hole,” a nod to Alice in Wonderland. Every such thought is stressful, and results in a release of cortisol and epinephrine into your system. These hormones rev up your body, and the catastrophic thoughts bring you to the point of panic, a vicious circle.


Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the moral of the Cherokee parable told at the beginning of the text?

  • A. That humans are inherently evil
  • B. That our emotions are what we choose to cultivate
  • C. That wolves are a symbol of internal conflict
  • D. That elders are wiser than the young

2. How is rational thinking encouraged in traditional cognitive therapy?

  • A. By jumping to conclusions based on feelings
  • B. By forming hypotheses and testing them systematically
  • C. By ignoring evidence that contradicts our beliefs
  • D. By fully believing our thoughts and feelings without question

3. What is the primary difference between rational and catastrophic thinking according to the text?

  • A. Rational thinking involves emotions while catastrophic thinking doesn’t
  • B. Rational thinking begins with data gathering while catastrophic thinking begins with the assumption that the worst has already happened
  • C. Catastrophic thinking is more evidence-based than rational thinking
  • D. Rational thinking involves quick decision making while catastrophic thinking involves rumination

4. What does the author mean by “going down the rabbit hole” in relation to catastrophic thoughts?

  • A. A reference to the curiosity and exploratory nature of the mind
  • B. The act of giving complete conviction to catastrophic thoughts, causing stress and potentially panic
  • C. The idea that catastrophic thoughts lead to enlightenment and growth
  • D. The tendency of the mind to create alternate realities that are more pleasant than the real world

5. What is the effect of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine on the body?

  • A. They decrease arousal and alertness
  • B. They increase arousal and alertness, leading to somatic symptoms of anxiety
  • C. They lead to immediate relaxation and peace
  • D. They make the individual less prone to stressful events

Answers

1. B. That our emotions are what we choose to cultivate

2. B. By forming hypotheses and testing them systematically

3. B. Rational thinking begins with data gathering while catastrophic thinking begins with the assumption that the worst has already happened

4. B. The act of giving complete conviction to catastrophic thoughts, causing stress and potentially panic

5. B. They increase arousal and alertness, leading to somatic symptoms of anxiety

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