Constantly Imagining the Worst Case Scenario Is Called 'Catastrophising' — Here's How to Stop Your Mind from Doing It

By Lindsay Dodgson 

  • Some people always let their minds jump to the worst possible conclusions.
  • This is known as catastrophic thinking, or "catastrophising."
  • It's a habit people get into for various reasons, and it can be difficult to break.
  • But it can be done, by learning to be logical and calm, and having a support network of sensible people you can call when you feel out of control.

If your friend is about to board a plane, and your first instinct is to worry about it crashing down in flames, you may be prone to catastrophic thinking.

It's also known as "catastrophising," and it happens to many people at some point in their lives. It might be a result of your previous bad experiences that you can't shake, or it could be linked to mental health issues like anxiety or chronic depression.

According to Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and columnist at the Telegraph, catastrophising is an unhelpful habit people fall into in some way.

"Nobody is born a catastrophiser," she told Business Insider. "Babies and not born catastrophising... it's a protective mechanism, because we think 'if I think the worst, then when the worst doesn't happen I'll feel relieved.'"

Unfortunately, life doesn't work this way. By thinking catastrophically, we are actually making things worse, because our unconscious mind doesn't distinguish emotionally between what we imagine and what really happens.

"You're living through an experience twice, and one of them is guaranteed to be bad, because you're thinking the worst," Blair said. "So in the end it really isn't very protective. It causes great anxiety, because the emotional side, the amygdala, it thinking that this is really happening, and it's terrible."

People may learn the habit of catastrophising because they've had a bad experience before that they didn't see coming. To protect themselves in the future, they start imagining the worst possible scenarios in every situation, because they don't want to be caught off-guard again.

They may think to themselves that going through the worst situation in their mind will mean they get it over and done with — but in reality, this isn't logical at all. Nobody can predict or prevent the future.

Other people catastrophise because it is what their parents did, and they copy the patterns of behaviour they saw growing up.

"You don't always have to have an experience that causes psychological problems," Blair said. "We tend to get a little hung up on that... but it could simply be because that's what you saw and that's what you copy."

Logic and a calm support network are the answer

Like any habit, catastrophising is hard to break. Habits are stubborn, and in many cases, people have behaved the same way for years, perhaps decades.

Blair said a bad habit is always ready to jump back into your life, especially when you get highly emotional. But the solution is to learn to be rational and calm.

For example, in the case of imagining a plane crash, Blair asks her clients to look at the statistics for airline crashes on their phone. Then, she tells them to look at the statistics for crashes with that particular airline.

"And I say ok, a minute ago you said you were 100% certain that this terrible thing was going to happen, what percent would you give it now? And it's always lower," she said.

People then tend to see how rewarding it is to focus on the logical answers, rather than letting their imaginations get carried away. The more impulsive you are, the more likely to are to slip back into old habits, Blair said, but it just takes practise and persistence to learn to slow down and go to logic first.

Another solution she recommended is 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."

So the next time you sense yourself spiraling over the fact your parents are late and could have been in an accident, or even something smaller like the fact someone isn't texting you back, take a breath and try to think objectively. Also, be aware of the fact you're trying to change, because it's not easy to adjust our behaviour.

"You must be kind to yourself and patient, and recognise the more emotional you are the more likely you are to not remember to do it right," Blair said. "Then, when we're still and we're calm, and things are under regulation, we get a chance to be logical."

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How much money it takes to be happy, according to science

Maybe money can buy happiness.

The average amount of annual income needed for a person to be generally satisfied with his or her life is $95,000, according to a recent analysis conducted by researchers at Perdue University. And it only takes $60,000 to $75,000 to attain emotional well-being.

"That might be surprising as what we see on TV and what advertisers tell us we need would indicate that there is no ceiling when it comes to how much money is needed for happiness," the study's co-author Andrew Jebb told the Perdue University News. "But we now see there are some thresholds."

The research team examined data collected from the Gallup World Poll of over 1.7 million people from 164 countries. The poll asked questions about life, satisfaction and well-being — what's referred to as "subjective well-being" — and found that the dollar amount necessary to achieve "income satiation" was about $95,000 on average.

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"This amount is for individuals and would likely be higher for families," Jebb said.

But the numbers varied with each country's relative wealth. The study, published in Nature Human Behavior, found that $125,000 is needed to attain life satisfaction in Australia but only $35,000 is necessary in Latin America. About $105,000 met the mark in North America, $100,000 in Europe, $70,000 in Southeast Asia and $45,000 in Eastern Europe.

The study also found that people might want to consider freezing their earning level once they reach these salaries because the data showed that with greater wealth came reduced subjective well-being. They speculated that it wasn't necessarily a higher wage that led to lower life satisfaction, but the greater demands often associated with making more money.

"High incomes are usually accompanied by high demands (time, workload, responsibility, and so on),” the researchers wrote, “that might also limit opportunities for positive experiences (for example, leisure activities).”



The Science of Well Being

About this course: “The Science of Well-Being” taught by Professor Laurie Santos overviews what psychological science says about happiness. The purpose of the course is to not only learn what psychological research says about what makes us happy but also to put those strategies into practice. The first half of the course reveals misconceptions we have about happiness and the annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do. The second half of the course focuses on activities that have been proven to increase happiness along with strategies to build better habits. Learners will be able to download a companion mobile app - ReWi - developed specifically for students of this course to practice methods taught in the course to promote their own positive behavior change.

Happy Links

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The different Meanings of HAPPINESS

Health and Happiness

Is Happiness Science the Next Health Frontier?

As anybody who has experienced the euphoria that comes after a long run—or even a restorative nap—can attest, health and happiness make for obvious bedfellows. But medical research tends to prioritize things that aren’t working, so we know far more about the link between negative emotions and physical illnesses than the reverse. It’s been proven, for instance, that long-term stress and fear can lead to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But what exactly is happiness, and how can it change our bodies for the better?

Doctors and public health experts who belong to a controversial new school of thought suggest that looking at only one half of the mind-body connection is shortsighted. A growing branch of research shows that there are very real links between happiness and physical well-being—and those in this field say a further understanding of this dynamic could be key to solving some of our most pressing health problems. Happier people have better immune systemsfewer heart problems, and lead longer lives. Last year, a study found a link between those who reported feeling a sense of purpose in life and a reduced incidence of sleep disturbances. Of course, a bad night’s sleep will not kill you, but a greater purpose in life is also associated with reduced likelihood of having a stroke, developing Alzheimer’s disease, or becoming disabled.

For a long time, the medical community thought of a positive mindset simply as the absence of a negative one. But now, Harvard’s newly opened Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness is devoted to studying this subject and mapping its nuances. And people like the center’s codirector Laura Kubzansky, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, are working to tease apart the different kinds of happiness (or “positive psychological well-being,” as scientists call it), and their respective benefits. These sub-categories of mental wellness include optimism, resilience, connectedness, vitality, and purposefulness. Happiness appears to be some part genetic, and also shaped by positive life circumstances such as social support, employment, and education.

“I’m interested in prevention, rather than fixing things after they’ve gone wrong,” Kubzansky says. “While I come from a background of looking at the bad stuff, like stress and anxiety and PTSD, I became interested in looking at the positive psychological states that confer some benefit above and beyond not being depressed. We need to understand, what is optimal functioning and how do we get there? Otherwise we are not going to be able to fully understand the deficits.”

How are they going to do this? The center's funding—including $21 million from the Chinese Lee Kum Kee family, who built their fortune on oyster sauce—will go towards numerous studies, the results of which are sure to make headlines in years to come. “To prove to skeptics that positive psychological wellbeing is truly causally contributing to improved physical health—that’s our number one goal,” Kubzansky says. Another big priority is communication, so that the center's findings move beyond the confines of academic journals and help governments set policies that will ward off large-scale health issues.

In the meantime, how can we improve our own sense of happiness? Kubzansky and her codirector K. “Vish” Viswanath—a professor of health communication at Harvard’s School of Public Health—are reluctant to offer advice this early. But one theme Viswanath is excited about is the positive role of friendship—or social capital, as he calls it. “It’s an unfortunate term that suggests money, but it’s actually the product of relationships between two people, and it matters a lot to our well-being,” he says. Those with positive personal relationships are more likely to take care of themselves, he notes. He is also fascinated by research showing links between a sense of purpose and lower mortality and decreased cardiovascular risk.


“It sounds like such a pat formula, but the notion of having a purposeful life geared toward something larger than you is enormously beneficial,” Viswanath says. “People ask me why I work all the time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


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Explorating Well Being

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10 Horrible Habits That Destroy Your Happiness

10 Horrible Habits That Destroy Your Happiness

We are all constantly in pursuit of happiness. Every day we make choices in life that affect how we feel and think about ourselves. We usually believe we are making good decisions that will bring us closer to a state of well-being. We naturally seek to avoid fear and create a comfortable life.

The only problem is that sometimes the choices we make actually increase our anxiety and despair. We fall into bad habits that hurt us and destroy our chances of finding lasting contentment.

You can stop the negative cycle and begin taking back your happiness by quashing these 10 horrible habits.

Tal Ben-Shahar: The Secret to Happiness

Six Tips for Happiness

Advice from Tal Ben-Shahar.

1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness. 

2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning. 

3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity? 

4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much. 

5. Remember the mind-body connection. What we do — or don't do — with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical ad mental health. 

6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

Everyone wants to be Happy

The one thing all humans have in common is that each of us wants to be happy, says Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. And happiness, he suggests, is born from gratitude. An inspiring lesson in slowing down, looking where you’re going, and above all, being grateful.

The investing upside of having more cash on hand than you need

In a paper called "How Your Bank Balance Buys Happiness: The Importance of 'Cash on Hand' to Life Satisfaction," researchers stacked up the bank account balances for nearly 600 Brits against their reported levels of happiness.

Turns out that liquidity makes us feel better.

"Holding investments and not being in debt are both associated with greater financial well-being, but having cash "on hand" is meaningful above and beyond those measures of wealth," wrote co-authors Peter Ruberton and Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, and Joe Gladstone at the University of Cambridge.

"While many individuals believe that increasing income or total wealth will improve their happiness, they may also benefit by building a financial buffer in their checking and savings accounts. We found this buffer to be associated with improved well-being regardless of how much a person earns, invests, or owes," wrote the academics.

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Orange Frog Workshop: Leading Positive Performance™ is an on-site experiential workshop that teaches the science of sustainable peak performance. The research is clear. Positive environments are performance enhancers. They are characterized by higher productivity, less turnover and more resilient cultures.

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  • A new study tries to unpick what makes people happy and sad

    The authors found that in the three rich countries mental illness was the strongest predictor of misery. With all other variables held constant, people who had visited a doctor recently with emotional-health problems were 10.7 percentage points more likely to be extremely unhappy than those who were not—roughly twice the impact of being poor. On one hand, this correlation should come as little surprise: people seeking treatment for depression are by definition unhappy. However, the study also included people suffering from stress or anxiety in this group. In Indonesia, mental health is also an important factor, though less so than employment.

  • How's Life? 2015 Measuring Well-being

    How’s Life? describes the essential ingredients that shape people’s well-being in OECD and partner countries. It includes a wide variety of statistics, capturing both material well-being (such as income, jobs and housing) and the broader quality of people’s lives (such as their health, education, work-life balance, environment, social connections, civic engagement, subjective well-being and safety). The report documents the latest evidence on well-being, as well as changes over time, and the distribution of well-being outcomes among different groups of the population