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