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Combat Catastrophic Thinking With Gratitude

bad things happen but it's never as bad as we think
❝Perspective is your own choice and the best way to shift that perspective is through gratitude. -Bronnie Ware

My wife and I are grateful for the shade the trees provide while we hike down the trail. We are in southeastern Tennessee in the summertime hiking to a waterfall, and I'm not used to this level of heat and humidity.

Luckily, we're walking through the shade, following a river upstream. The scenery is beautiful, and the fresh air feels great. The path we are on is pretty well-traveled. As a result, we have to watch our footing because many roots from the trees have been exposed. They are easy to trip over - I've already tripped, so as much as I would love to keep my head up and look at the scenery, I keep my head down to see where I'm putting my feet. There's a big root coming up, and luckily I spot it. With my current stride, I plan to just step on the root and keep moving.

Right as I'm about to step on the root, the root starts slithering, sliding, and coiling.

To understand what happens next, you have to picture a contortionist undulating in midair while attempting to avoid a swarm of bees while yelling, "HOLY $#!+, IT'S MOVING!!!". I'm not proud of my impromptu dance moves and R-rated language, but I am grateful that the tree root, which turned out to be a gigantic snake, did not unhinge its mouth and swallow me whole as they do on the Discovery channel.

Looking back, I don't have any idea if this was a harmless snake or if it was a very venomous snake. What I do know is that I didn't decide to dance like a one-legged clown; my body just did it whether I liked it or not!

We are hardwired to assume the worst in potentially dangerous situations. And while assuming the worst can sometimes help us in life and death situations, it rarely helps us when it comes to our money.


It's natural for us to assume the worst-case scenario. In fact, it's hardwired into us. Assuming the worst may have helped our ancestors survive, but it doesn't do much to help us today.

Assuming the worst could be believing that you'll never find a partner again after a breakup. It could be thinking that a fight will end in divorce. Worst-case scenario thinking could be imagining that you'll lose your house because you lost your job.

Examples are numerous, but they have one thing in common: highly pessimistic forecasts about all the bad things that will happen. Assuming the worst is a dark place where we've lost hope.

anxiety cycle, where we stress out, have negative thoughts and assume the worst


Assuming the worst is hardwired into us because we can't be right all the time. What I mean by that is, if we think something is good and it is good, then we are correct. If we think something is bad and it is bad, then we are also correct. We don't have any problems when we correctly predict whether or something will be good or bad.

The problem comes from when our assumptions are wrong. And if we're going to be wrong, then we want to err on the side of being too cautious.

If we think something will be good, but it turns out to be bad, that is extremely dangerous for us. On the other hand, if we think something will be bad for us, but it turns out to be good for us, then we just get embarrassed, but it's not life-threatening.

For example, if I see a stick (good), but I think it's a dangerous snake (bad), I may get embarrassed, but I'll be around to be embarrassed again tomorrow. On the other hand, if I see a snake (bad), but I think it's a stick (good), then I might be in trouble.

When I was hiking in Tennessee, I may have seen a harmless snake (good) and assumed it was a dangerous snake (bad). Sure, it was embarrassing, but I didn't have to go to the emergency room with a snake bite. On the other hand, if I saw a dangerous snake (bad) but assumed it was a harmless snake (good), I could have been in trouble.

we have a negativity bias that skews out thinking


The tendency we have to assume the worst-case scenario is so common that it has a name. It's called our negativity bias. We developed this negativity bias for a reason; namely, it's better to be alive and embarrassed than it is to be brave and dead.

Author Rick Hansen writes that because of our negativity bias, our brains are like Velcro for the bad around us but Teflon for the good around us. It's important to note that this is not something that we do on purpose. This happens underneath conscious awareness. If you ask people all the things that have gone wrong in the last two days, they'll make you a long list. If you ask people all the things that have gone well in the last two days, they may come up with a list, but it'll take longer to remember them.

Negativity bias feeds itself. In other words, assuming the worst and stressing out about the bad around us while ignoring the positive aspects of our lives has the potential to throw us into a downward spiral that is difficult to recover from.

Negativity bias leads to a downward spiral in thinking


We have to consciously break the spell of or negativity bias. One way to do this is to take a bigger picture view of what is currently happening. We can actively ask ourselves if there is a different way to view the situation. We can ask ourselves how we would help a friend who had the same thing happening to them. We can also ask ourselves if there are any silver linings or how this might make us more resilient in the future.

The point, though, is that it's almost never as bad as it seems.

gain perspective by taking a big picture view


Practicing gratitude is the antidote to negativity bias. Having a hardwired brain towards focusing on the negative may have helped our ancestors, but it is outdated now. Having a negativity bias helps when we are struggling to meet our basic survival needs. However, if you are reading this, it is highly unlikely that your basic survival needs aren't being met.

Routinely ask yourself what three things have happened today that you're grateful for. Ask yourself what person in your life makes your life better. Ask yourself what you're grateful to be able to look forward to. Make it a practice of routinely focusing on the things you are grateful for will eventually pay off in the form of happiness.

If you are interested, you can download a Gratitude Log exercise to help you get started.

gain perspective and practice gratitude to combat catastrophic thinking

Having automatic negative thoughts and catastrophically thinking is normal. It's normal to experience what it's like to be a human.

But just because it's normal doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. Slow down when you have decisions to make. Put some space between stimulus and response. Take a bigger picture view and practice gratitude. You can combat catastrophic thinking, but it takes time.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Until next time,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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