Why Even the Best Leaders Expect the Worst

It’s called catastrophizing, and it doesn’t do you, your team, or your organization any good. Try these simple strategies to clear your head and become more resilient.

By Christopher Cotteta and Kyle V. Hiller

Leaders are no strangers to anxiety. Pressure mounts as your daily tasks grow and responsibility and expectations swell. Not every day is going to feel like it’s “your day.” In fact, most days don’t.

Up to 70 percent of our thoughts are negative thoughts, a phenomenon referred to as negative dominance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works up to 9.4 hours per day, with many claiming they work up to 50 hours per week. So imagine how much of that negative dominance is happening while you’re at work. These negative thoughts, anxiety, and pressure can culminate into a much bigger, more common problem: catastrophizing.

Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion in which we automatically imagine the worst possible outcome for a given situation. It’s in the term: Problems balloon into catastrophes, and we tend to think it’s the end of the world. 

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A blown deadline will surely get you fired. A presentation will fall flat and disappoint your colleagues. Losing one client will cause an avalanche of doom and gloom. Studies suggest this impacts your mental and physical health, as catastrophizing has been associated with chronic pain, arthritis, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s almost certainly the case that none of the scenarios you catastrophize about coming true will come true. But your mind—and your body—are going to tell you otherwise.

How to Recognize Catastrophizing 

Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), and Aaron Beck, a critical contributor to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practices, described catastrophizing as a “mal-adaptive cognitive style employed by patients with anxiety and depressive disorders.” 

Their study demonstrates how catastrophizing manifests, beginning with magnification (“I wonder whether something serious may happen”) to rumination (“I can’t seem to get it out of my mind”) and landing at helplessness (“It’s terrible and I think it’s never going to get any better”). 

While this study emphasizes “pain catastrophization,” these examples in the hierarchical factor structure probably sound familiar.

How to Stop Catastrophizing

As we discussed in our recent whitepaper on Building Resilience, adopting the right mindset is one of three essential behaviors for leaders who want to learn how to adapt to stress and build stronger teams. 

While it might not be possible to turn catastrophizing off completely, there are several strategies you can follow to keep it at bay.

Strategy #1: Label Your Thoughts

Think about how helpful it is when you label your job and your responsibilities. When you have a title, it can help make your work make more sense. 

Treat your thoughts the same way, especially the negative ones. Come up with a label or title for thoughts like “I’m going to get fired” or “I’m a failure.” Make the titles silly or whimsical: These are my “Evil Twin’s thoughts” or “The CEO of Untrue Industries is back in my head again.” This takes away their power.

When they pop up again (and they will), you’ll recognize them for what they really are: fears of something that isn’t going to happen. They aren’t truths or actual happenings—they’re just bad ideas. 

The thought of getting fired is simply your thought about getting fired. Chances are you’re the only one in the workplace who’s thinking it anyway. The label you give these thoughts will remind you about the reality of your abilities and your circumstances.

Strategy #2: Catch Plenty of Sleep

Grind culture has conditioned us to think sleep isn’t a priority. But without sufficient rest, you won’t have the mental energy to properly navigate your work or your thoughts. Those troubling, anxious thoughts you get at 1 a.m. after too much doom scrolling aren’t going to go away when you have to get up in a few hours.

Studies show sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which helps with social behavior, decision making, and planning. Pushing through too much when you’re exhausted is going to limit your capacity to do your job. Adjust your schedule and make time for proper rest and sleep. Caffeine isn’t going to save you from catastrophizing, but good sleep will. Rest is part of your work.

And on those brutal days when sleep is out of the question, seek out frequent, short breaks while at work. Look away from your screens—especially your phone. Do quick stretches, take deep breaths, and stay hydrated. These little things can help put the thoughts to bed.

Strategy #3: Break a Sweat

Set aside some time every day to exercise. This can be as simple as taking a walk, practicing yoga, or going all in with a full workout. Whatever you can do, use it to stave off negative thoughts by giving your mind something physical in which to engage.

Plenty of studies show a link between exercising and a reduction in anxiety and depression.One study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, for example, shows improvements in mood are likely “caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the [HPA axis], and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.” 

Eventually, your body will be worried more about the steps you take or the reps you complete than whatever abstract worries you’re carrying.

Strategy #4: Set an Intention

This is a good way to center your focus. It doesn’t have to be a big intention or goal, but rather, something as simple as sending out one email or request or nailing a meeting. It can also be more broad or intangible, like being more mindful of your relationship with self care. 

When you do this, you focus more on what you intend to happen instead of what can happen—like what could go wrong. Intention helps you coordinate your energy toward the things you control.

Strategy #5: Talk to a Therapist

Cognitive behavioral therapy reduces catastrophizing in addition to other symptoms that it may cause, according to a 2017 study. Your first move should be to make an appointment with a licensed CBT therapist. 

But if you don’t have access, it might also be helpful in the meantime to seek out a close friend and let them know your concerns. A good friend will remind you how talented you are and calm you back down into a more stable grasp of reality. 

That reality? Everything is probably going to be all right. But if it isn’t, you’ve gotten this far—and you’ll be able to handle whatever else comes your way. It’s healthy to have someone to remind you of that truth. If that’s not an option for you, try reading about CBT, learning how it has been proven helpful, and discovering ways to self-teach CBT.

Resilience as the Cure

Catastrophizing isn’t going to get you to where you want to go. Instead, recognizing these thoughts and actively dispelling them will set your focus in the right direction. Combining the strategies with our full Building Resilience framework will help you minimize catastrophizing and create a healthy, conducive working environment.

With a more optimistic mindset and greater resilience, you can avoid setbacks, resolve conflicts and mistakes more efficiently, organize and build better structures and systems, and cultivate stronger, more empathetic leadership.

Christopher Cotteta is a leadership consultant for AIIR Consulting, where he specializes in designing some of the world’s most effective leadership development journeys. He has played an instrumental role in developing and launching next-generation assessments like the Coaching Mindset Index, the AIIR Team Effectiveness Survey, and AIIR Dynamics 360. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

Kyle V. Hiller is a writer, journalist, and media artist as well as a leadership content contributor for AIIR Consulting. He has been featured in many publications including Paste and Philly Metro and he was the winner of the 2020 Lenfest Institute for Journalism Next Generation Grant. You can find him online at kylevhiller.com and LinkedIn.