Want to Avoid Catastrophe? Mind Your Language!

By Karen Amos

Well, 2020 truly is the gift that keeps on giving!  Have you ever wondered though, how some people seem to sail through things easier than others?  The reason isn’t usually due to their circumstances, but all about mindset – that is to say, the way they think about or perceive things.

The great thing about our mindset is that we can change it and by doing so, we can change our perception and in turn our experience in life.

Just a quick cautionary note here.  Some people are experiencing truly catastrophic events right now; they are suffering the loss of loved ones and failure of businesses they have invested their life savings in.  This article isn’t about negating these events – we need to be allowed to freely express our emotions at this time – but rather that our day-to-day language needs to be proportionate and also ‘helpful’ to us.

Mind your language…

The language we habitually use can significantly impact our mindset – negatively or positively.  This has never been so crucial as at a time like the one we’re living through.  There’s a phrase to describe this as coined by Albert Ellis – ‘AWFULIZING’ – where we perceive or describe a situation as being much worse than it actually is. ¹  I had such an experience in a recent coaching session with a client.

Like many people, my client is working under huge pressure due to the covid situation.  They are supporting a team who are dealing with negative changes on a daily, if not hourly basis.  What jumped out at me was the language she and the team were using.  ‘I had a meltdown,’ and ‘It’s a nightmare,’ were just a couple of examples.

Let’s just examine this for a moment.  ‘Meltdown’.  ‘Nightmare’. Really?  When we started to unpick this, it was obvious that such extreme language was actually adding to the stress and anxiety experienced by both the person saying the words and those hearing it.

Other commonly used catastrophic expressions include:

  • I’m overwhelmed…
  • It was devastating…
  • The situation is terrifying…
  • I’m exhausted…

Quite simply, our words generate an emotional response, so catastrophic language leads to heightened arousal levels whereas more ‘neutral’ or ‘positive’ language has the opposite effect.

So what to do? 

If you find yourself or others around you using awfulizing, catastrophic, or just plain exaggerated language, there are some useful coaching questions that can help:

  • Is this really a ‘disaster’ [insert chosen catastrophic phrase as desired!]?
  • Is there a more accurate way to describe this?
  • What’s really going on here?
  • What’s the evidence telling me?
  • What did I actually see, hear, experience?
  • Are there any positives here? (There are usually some things that we can take from a situation, however awful – e.g. that you were really challenged, but managed to contain the situation.)

Recognise and Replace…

Using the ‘recognise and replace’ process to build new, more helpful habits and language is an easy and effective way to reduce your stress.  You ‘recognise’ that you (or others) have used overly catastrophic or dramatic language, then ‘replace’ this with something more representative of what’s really happened.  By doing so, you increase personal resilience and empowerment and decrease stress levels – both for yourself and others.

An example might be:

“This situation is a complete nightmare!”


“Things are really challenging us from lots of angles at the moment.  Our resources are stretched and we need to make some tough decisions.”

The latter example leaves people feeling more in control and empowered within their situation.  Try it!

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_emotive_behavior_therapy

If you’d like support for you or your team to reduce stress and build resilience and effectiveness at work, get in touch for an informal, no-obligation chat. 

We offer one-to-one and team coaching and in-house training programmes.

Call us on 07714 855757, or email info@bright-bird.co.ukOr visit our NEW training pages HERE 

Karen Amos is an executive coach and founder of BrightBird Coaching & Training. She supports under-pressure business owners and managers to get the best out of themselves and their teams. She brings a practical, down-to-earth approach to improving working lives through better leadership, communication and working relationships.