Stress & Anxiety

How to Stop Catastrophizing: A Guide for ADHD Worriers

Catastrophizing and worrying may spark an anxiety spiral. Dismantle negative thoughts by differentiating productive worry from toxic worry, identifying negative behaviors, and building a support system. Here’s how to get started.

Anxiety and stress caused by thinking too much. overthinking concept
Anxiety and stress caused by thinking too much. overthinking concept

Worrying isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be bothersome and even debilitating. Sometimes, it can be motivating. Worrying about submitting your homework, getting to work on time, or charging your phone are examples of productive worrying. Productive worriers are forward thinkers who devise creative solutions and plans to address likely outcomes.

The flip side is poisonous or toxic worry — worrying about things you can’t control, like thunderstorms, plane crashes, whether people like you, etc. This catastrophic thinking replays in your brain over and over again. It leads to discomfort. Toxic worriers have trouble sleeping; they feel exhausted or agitated; they get headaches or nausea; they avoid living fully.

The Worrying-Anxiety Connection

Anxiety arises when you over-respond to fear or worry. It is physiological. Anxiety may cause uncomfortable bodily states, such as stomach pains or chest tightness, headaches, dry mouth, or hot palms. Anxiety also comes with a psychological component (distorted beliefs and/or negative expectations) and an emotional facet (fear, dread).

Anxiety has helped us survive as a species. It’s been adaptive over the centuries and helps our bodies prepare for real danger. When facing a tiger about to pounce around the bend in a forest, our muscles tightened, and our breath became shallow. We were ready to flee or fight, and sometimes, we also froze, perhaps becoming someone’s dinner. But today, anxiety is rarely caused by an approaching tiger. While there may be genuine concerns in unsafe situations, often, our anxiety is a false alarm: an overreaction to the danger itself. That late-night email from your boss may not be a hungry tiger, but it will still set off a series of distress signals in your brain and body that make you think like there is one.

There’s a real difference between a perceived danger and a real threat. A true danger is when you don’t notice a speeding car heading your way as you cross the street and jump back on the curb just in time to avoid a collision. Perceived danger is based on a negative expectancy without grounding in reality: You see a tiny spider crawling on the ceiling. It could crawl down ten feet and another six feet across the floor, up your leg, and bite you. You could die from this imagined spider bite because you think, without any facts, that the spider is deadly. Negative expectancy and all-or-nothing thinking are common in people with ADHD due to a common symptom: emotional dysregulation. However, you can learn to unravel these perceptions and stop catastrophizing. To start, identify if a worry is productive or toxic.

[Take This Test: Could You Have an Anxiety Disorder?]

Toxic Worry vs. Productive Worry

Productive worry can help you solve problems and focus your energy on useful ideas. For example, my husband is a productive worrier who uses backward design to get us to the airport in plenty of time for our flights.

But productive worry can go awry, which happened once when my husband and I were at the end of a beautiful vacation spent at Glacier National Park in Montana. We were heading to the airport, and I asked if we could pick up lunch.

“It’s 11:45 a.m., and our plane leaves at 1:45 p.m. We have time because this airport is quite small,” I said.

“We don’t have time,” my husband said. He was so worried about missing the flight that he began speeding, and we got pulled over by a police officer. Luckily, the police officer did not give us a speeding ticket. But the interaction wasted precious minutes and distressed us both. Nonetheless, much to his chagrin, I insisted on picking up lunch, and we still had plenty of time at the airport.

[Free Resource: How to Use CBT to Combat Negative Thoughts]

It doesn’t take much for productive worry to transform into toxic worry. While productive worry focuses more on controlling a situation, toxic worry makes you feel vulnerable. I am a combination worrier: sometimes productive (Will I turn this article in on time? I better!) and sometimes toxic (Will my Facebook Live event have helpful conversations? Will my daughter who lives 3,000 miles away get their flu vaccine?) While I can control and influence my actions to address my productive worry, there’s nothing I can do about my toxic worry. I have to acknowledge my concerns and then let them go. This, of course, is much easier said than done.

3 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing

To shift toxic worry into something productive, you need to first recognize that you are catastrophizing. This happens when your brain’s amygdala (the fight, flight or freeze) organ in the limbic system-the emotional region) figuratively takes over your thinking brain (your prefrontal cortex) by activating adrenaline and cortisol. Your entire being is focused on obtaining safety and feeling secure. Basically, the part of you that runs from tigers and steps aside from racing cars begins controlling all your responses.

1. Dismantle the “What-Ifs”

To regain control, turn down the volume on your catastrophic thinking by remembering past successes, tools, interventions, and statements you’ve used to overcome perceived dangers. When I’m in a “what-if” spiral, I shift my thinking to “What could go right?”

Follow your “what-ifs” to the end of the line. Ask yourself, “What if this happened? And then what? And what if that happened? And then what?” Keep going until there’s some resolution. Can you live with that resolution?

Try to consider best-case outcomes in addition to worst-case scenarios. What might happen that could be positive? Can I predict any happiness instead of pain?

2. Set Up a Buddy System

Toxic worry intensifies in isolation. So, set up a buddy system with someone you trust who can offer a different perspective. Who could you call or text if you’re in a poisonous worry spiral? Do you have a therapist, coach, or counselor? Whether you are concerned about perfectionism, personal relationships, or sociopolitical injustices, who could be your ally in these dark moments?

3. Create a Plan

Come up with a plan for escaping your next spiral. Make a list of self-soothing actions to take when worry rears its ugly head. Post it somewhere accessible, like on your phone or sticky notes at home. Your plan can include settle-me-down phrases such as “I’m afraid, and I know how to be brave” or “Things work out, keep breathing.” It can also contain a list of activities to slow your reactivity, such as drinking a glass of water, walking outside, cuddling a pet, getting a hug, etc. Here are some more ideas:

  • Exercise. Daily exercise pumps up your endorphins, which bathe your brain with good feelings. When I wake up feeling “ugh,” a run or bike ride gets me out of my negative headspace.
  • Create a playlist. Categorize songs into different playlists on your phone, label them “angry songs,” “sad songs,” “happy songs,” “how-to-stop-worrying songs,” etc.
  • Practice mindfulness to interrupt the pattern of negative thinking. Meditate. Do yoga. Listen to the birds. Drink a cup of tea. Do a crossword puzzle. Play Wordle.
  • Try triangle breathing. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, and exhale slowly for six counts. Do several rounds of this.

Ultimately, the best intervention for catastrophizing is one that releases your toxic worries back into the wild so that you no longer carry them. Poisonous worry says, “Something bad could happen, and you can’t handle it.” Instead of listening to or agreeing to this noise, say, “I’ve got this. I can hold onto my courage and move forward.”

Catastrophizing and Worrying: Next Steps

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