Managing anxiety by reducing catastrophic thinking: Part 1 – Overestimating danger

In this article, I discuss how to reduce anxiety by targeting the first of two elements of catastrophic thinking—overestimating the likelihood of negative events occurring.

Imagine that you have a smoke alarm that works correctly. It goes off when there is real danger as a result of a fire but does not go off when it shouldn’t—such as when you are cooking something. Now consider having a smoke alarm that goes off not just for actual fires but frequently when it shouldn’t. Anxiety properly managed is like the correctly functioning smoke alarm. Anxiety not properly managed is like the smoke alarm going off when it shouldn’t.

Whether you are talking about a smoke alarm or anxiety, the common indicator that your signal is not working properly is overestimating danger. People who experience anxiety at levels which are uncomfortable and even overwhelming often overestimate the likelihood that negative events will occur. In the remainder of this article, I will provide several examples of how overestimating danger adds to anxiety and then show you ways you can reduce anxiety by estimating danger more accurately.

How overestimating danger plays a role in various anxiety issues

Overestimating the likelihood of negative events plays a critical role in the following anxiety issues:

(1) In panic disorder, panic attacks are the result of the person believing catastrophic misinterpretations of their physical sensations. For example, someone might have a panic attack as a result of believing that slight increases in their heart rate are indicative of an impending heart attack;

(2) In health anxiety, a person experiences ongoing anxiety as a result of believing that various physical peculiarities are indicative of serious health problems even though medical tests have determined that nothing is wrong;

(3) People with generalized anxiety disorder are characterized by constant worrying. Their anxiety is elevated both by their overestimating the likelihood of negative events occurring in their lives along with the belief that they would be unable to cope with these events when they occur;

(4) People suffering from social anxiety issues overestimate the degree to which others are evaluating and criticizing them and believe they cannot cope with criticism—real or imagined;

(5) In obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a person believes that their negative thoughts will lead to catastrophic outcomes, leading them to engage in time-consuming behaviours called compulsions to reduce the anxiety they experience as a result of these beliefs.

Dr. Patrick Keelan Anxiety Counselling

How you can reduce anxiety by addressing the overestimating danger element

Given that the theme of mistaken beliefs is common to each of the above examples in which people suffer from excessive anxiety, it is no surprise that one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety is to change these beliefs. This can be done by gathering evidence to assess the validity of those beliefs. As you will see in the following applications of this strategy, sometimes the most compelling evidence to challenge anxiety-fuelling beliefs is collected in experiments to test the beliefs. A psychologist specializing in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you implement these techniques to help you address your particular anxiety issues:

(1) For panic disorder, it is helpful to conduct experiments in which you experience the sensations attached to catastrophic beliefs and substitute non-catastrophic beliefs for them. Doing so regularly should reduce the belief in the catastrophic interpretations, thus reducing the anxiety which is characteristic of the panic attacks;

(2) To reduce health anxiety, refrain from engaging in the repeated checking and medical testing which fuels the anxiety and the tendency to catastrophize should go down along with the anxiety;

(3) To address the constant worrying in generalized anxiety disorder, test each specific catastrophic prediction with evidence. This evidence can be gathered ahead of time or the predictions can be evaluated later in terms of whether they came true and whether you were unable to cope. This evidence-gathering helps to challenge the catastrophic beliefs focused on the predictions, with a concomitant reduction in anxiety;

(4) Social anxiety can be lowered by using a procedure similar to that used to address the distress found in generalized anxiety disorder. For social anxiety, use evidence and experiments to test the validity of your negative beliefs regarding other people’s negative evaluations and criticisms of you;

(5) To address OCD, the recommended ‘exposure and response prevention’ treatment involves preventing the person from engaging in the compulsive behaviours they typically engage in to lower the anxiety they experience as a result of their danger-filled obsessive thoughts. This technique allows the person to gather evidence demonstrating that their negative thoughts do not produce the catastrophic outcomes they fear, resulting in a lasting reduction in their anxiety.

Increasing coping: A second way to reduce anxiety by targeting catastrophic thinking

In my next article, I will discuss how you can reduce anxiety by addressing the second element of catastrophic thinking—underestimating your ability to cope with negative events which may occur in your life. As I have seen first-hand in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, taking steps to increase the belief that you can cope with negative events is particularly helpful if you suffer from generalized anxiety or social anxiety concerns. For those issues in anxiety counselling, increasing coping is an essential complement to the strategies discussed in this article which address the ‘overestimating danger’ element of catastrophic thinking.

May your estimations of danger be accurate ones,

-Dr. Pat


2018-03-21T11:06:09+00:00By |Categories: Anxiety|

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  1. stephen mack February 24, 2018 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    Dear Dr. Pat,
    I am an almost independent practitioner of clinical psychology. “Almost” because I have yet to score the requisite 500 points for the EPPP. I have taken the exam 4 times. My scores have been as high as 492. To say that I have more negative thoughts about not ever passing would be an understatement! Yes passing the exam is intertwined with my sense of self . Right now I do not care to encounter any classmates for fear of them asking, “Did you get it?” I study with the intensity of an offensive lineman hitting and moving the tackle sled from the one yard line into the opposing end zone. This mind set has caused me to burn out. I have no desire to entertain life without passing or as Ellis might say, “Who says you have to pass the EPPP?” Well who says, are those who can legitimately call themselves, “licensed psychologist!” Please offer suggestions .steve

    • March 13, 2018 at 10:06 am - Reply

      Dear Steve:

      First off, I sympathize and empathize with you regarding your dislike of the EPPP. I personally found it to be great weight off my shoulder when I passed. Here are some ideas which hopefully will help you to persevere until you pass the exam and become a licensed psychologist:

      (1) I think you need a good combination of problem-focused coping and self-focused coping to deal with this situation:

      (2) Problem-focused coping would entail your continuing to study to the point that you pass the exam and make changes in your studying strategies to get you a passing score. Your scores indicate that you are very close to passing. However, I would recommend you explore options for making some changes in your studying to get you ‘over the top’. I succeeded in passing by meeting weekly with a study group and studying the material on my own between group meetings along with doing many practice tests. I can tell from what you said that this stressor is wearing on you so ideally with continued studying and some changes in study strategies you can pass the exam in the near future. I would consult with as many people as possible to explore ideas for possible changes to get you to ‘the promised land’;

      (3) Self-focused coping will help you to manage the stress you’re experiencing from the exam until you pass it. This includes making time for relaxing activities to take your mind off the exam and thinking about the situation in a balanced way.

      On these points: I agree with you that ultimately you do want to pass to become a licensed psychologist but the fact that you have taken more than one try at passing is common and has no reflection on a person’s intelligence or skill as a psychologist. If being around your colleagues in psychology at this point makes it hard for you to take your mind off the exam and your frustrations with it, for the time being it may be wise to spend as little time as possible around these people.

      I know that you have what it takes to accomplish this goal. Once you have done so, you can get on with your primary goal which is to have a great career as a licensed psychologist.

      Best regards,

      Dr. Pat

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