Feel Like Your Life Is Constantly Falling Apart? Read This
"You live in Apocalypse, don't you?" I asked my friend Sam.
He nodded slowly. "My head's a shitty place to be in."
I felt that because I used to live there too. And "Apocalypse Mind" doesn't just fill your waking moments; it pervades your dreams, and you wake up tired, as though your brain has been active all night.
In psychology, we call jumping to terrible conclusions "catastrophizing," a trademark of anxiety. We all do a little catastrophizing every now and then, but I've coined the term Apocalypse Mind to describe when catastrophizing pervades everything we say, do, and think. We aren't just thinking of what can go wrong in one single moment—we expect that the worst-case scenario will happen all the time.
Here's how the Apocalypse Mind obsesses and overthinks:
1. "I'm only pre-empting!"
My left shoulder seizes up still whenever I remember my parents scolding me whenever I made a mistake: "Why didn't you pre-empt!?" My young brain simply didn't understand what pre-empting was; what ensued, however, was an obsession with looking out for all the ways something could go wrong. We call this "defensive pessimism1" in psychology, where imagining the worst helps us prevent these mistakes from happening; it's somewhat similar to the pre-mortems they perform in Silicon Valley. I get it that it's useful for accomplishments or big projects, or if you're an event planner who needs to consider every contingency. But if that extends to every aspect of your life, then it consumes you. Put it this way: It's one thing to have a safety mindset and note where the emergency exits are. It's another to be preoccupied with thoughts of accidents happening and therefore being unable to engage in what's going on.
2. "I must take action…now!"
If we don't take action immediately, we assume everything will collapse, and it'll be our fault—or reflect that we are lazy, indecisive, or bad leaders.
But when we make decisions from a place of anxiety, we aren't engaging with our innate wisdom. Picture yourself during the last time you were lost in a tornado of anxious thoughts. Your body is wound up, you see the world through a negative lens, and all memories you retrieve are associated with anxiety and negative outcomes. This accelerates any ongoing anxiety, and your decisions are ill-considered or impulsive. The saying that our thoughts create our reality isn't about magical thinking. It's real.
3. "I procrastinate all the time."
There is a theory that we procrastinate to manage anxiety because the task may be unpleasant or trigger feelings of deficiency. Our fear center in the brain becomes aroused. And so we either lose ourselves in something that enables us to escape these feelings or procrastinate by indulging our Apocalyptic Mind. Whether the chosen route is self-medication or digging ourselves deeper into Apocalypse, we often regret and blame ourselves, feeling like we lack discipline and self-control, and nothing will ever go right.
4. "I need to get it right!"
Perfectionism and anxiety go hand-in-hand. When we have an obsessive need for perfection, we cannot tolerate uncertainty or loss of control. Nothing is a light decision; everything can go wrong. In our heads, any possible errors are the end of the world, or the thought of having to fix them feels that way. As a result, we obsess for a long time over unnecessary minutiae—except that we also learn to see ourselves as bad decision makers and indecisive.
Resonate with the above? Here are a few steps to help you break free from this unhelpful thought pattern.
1. Ask yourself this: Why do you condemn yourself to the worst possible outcome?
Apocalypse Mind is gazing into a cracked crystal ball—the only future you see is fire and brimstone, doom and gloom. If you wouldn't pay a fortuneteller who only told you such things, why do you continue to pay the price in terms of overthinking?
Here's the deal. There is a story we tell ourselves with why we need to have Apocalypse Mind. The simplest way to banish this mindset is to figure out what that underlying story is and where it started. See if there's a way for you to live out a new, friendlier story where your life can still be accomplished but with a lot more peace.
2. Recognize the difference between worrying and planning.
"But if I didn't worry, I'd never have gotten this far," many of my clients tell me. In our heads, worrying is fundamentally useful; to ax it from our lives is to become lazy, unproductive, and unaccomplished.
Newsflash: Worrying didn't bring you your success. Planning did. Worrying is where your fears have infinite space in your head to metastasize like a tumor; before long, five minutes have become three hours, and you're angry with yourself for procrastinating. Planning is when you actually have some sort of strategy for what you want to do, and you're actually actively problem-solving. The best way to ensure you're planning and not worrying? Scribble it out on a piece of paper.
3. Repeat after me: Sometimes inaction is the best action.
As someone who's philosophically Taoist, I love the concept of "wu wei," which means inaction. I get how it feels like we must immediately leap into action, but this can be impulsive and unwise. Stepping back to compose ourselves or consider all the factors can feel strange. Think about it this way: Do you want to win the battle but lose the war? There is a time for everything. Sometimes we need to watch the situation play out or build up our energy to win the entire war.
4. Give yourself a time limit.
I'm not saying "care less" or pretend you don't like details and standards—that requires a personality transplant. Personally, I live in spreadsheets, and once I got over my envy of how others around me seemed not to sweat the details, I learned to love my hyper-organized lifestyle. At the same time, we fundamentally need to put limits around our overactive minds. The simplest way is to institute a time limit for any activity—including planning, problem-solving, or even worrying. I encourage my clients to book this slot into their calendar, so even if any apocalyptic thoughts pop into their heads throughout the day, they know they have that time slot to worry or solve problems.
5. Identify what you're really afraid of.
I invite my clients to reflect on what part of their life gets implicated if Apocalypse happens—often, it's self-image, social rejection, money, or time. This is actually your fundamental anxiety, and so it's key to work on exorcizing that old demon (therapy or coaching might help).
As you do that, you can consider the areas of your life where you can afford to be imperfect and loosen up in. If that feels scary, ask yourself, What's the worst that can really happen?" You'll realize that for a lot of things, it's not that much.
6. Experiment with letting go.
I used to plan every minute detail of my travels, drawing out every route and outfit I'd have. While it could be fun, it was also exhausting. One day, I decided on a road trip that I'd pack random outfits and stop by any hotel the road took us on. As the hours flew by, I realized I wasn't hellbent on ticking a box on my checklist. Instead, I learned to be spontaneous. Today, I no longer plan my trips in advance and am no longer precious about covering every "must-see" sight. In this vein, I invite you to consider where in your life can you experiment with letting go.
7. Ask yourself: Are your fears reasonable and controllable?
Not all fears are rational. Yes, there is a possibility that the bridge you walk on may collapse. There is also the possibility that your house may get burned down. We can't live in a padded cell and plan for every eventuality. So if your fear isn't reasonably going to happen, then it's time to find a way to let go of it, in particular by acknowledging its presence and then choosing not to entertain it every time it pops into your head.
You might also stop to ask yourself if the outcome in question is controllable. For instance, it's really a waste of energy to be worrying about things that happen to other people because that's an outcome you cannot control.
8. Figure out who you're looking for approval from, because that makes everything worse.
When we live in Apocalypse, we often find the need to explain ourselves all the time. Worse still, there are specific people whom we are looking for approval from, who will never give it to us. So this need to explain and never receiving that approval breeds a vicious cycle, where we keep raising our standards, working harder, and yet the finish line keeps moving further away. If there is such a person in your life, cut the idea that they're being disapproving for your own good. Yes, the best people in our lives call us out. But there is a difference between that and someone who's always dumping metaphorical shit on you.
9. Stop tolerating.
Sometimes we talk ourselves out of addressing our Apocalypse minds with justifications that where our heads are at isn't as bad as starving children in developing nations. That's not a fair assessment: If it affects your performance and well-being, then you should do something about it.
The other problem with Apocalypse Mind is that we oscillate between being lost in it and escaping it; when things feel out of control, we'd pay for anything to take that fear and pain away. But when things feel a tad better, we talk ourselves out of taking action. But this improvement is only temporary. The Apocalypse Mind does not get better on its own; we learn to grow more helpless and hopeless with time.
Many of us fear, "Who am I if I stop worrying?" You can still be an accomplished, detail-oriented person, just with way better sleep and peace. Know this: We were not born to wrestle with Apocalypse Mind.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.