#0006 — Socratic Questioning

How to stop catastrophizing.

She’s late.

It’s raining really bad.

She must have been in a car accident.

What if she’s dead??

🛑 Problem

That’s an example of catastrophizing. It’s an irrational thought process that makes it feel like the worst case scenario is likely to occur. It happens to everyone, but some people experience it often. Catastrophizing is stressful and can cause real pain.

✅ Solution

We can use an exercise named Socratic Questioning to:

  • prevent catastrophizing.

  • reduce stress after catastrophizing has occurred.


🔎 How it works

Socratic questioning helps us see reality more accurately. It pokes holes in the ideas that we assume are true. It also builds evidence for more accurate interpretations of real life events.

There’s 2 steps:

The first step is to write down the thought or scenario that is causing you stress.

Then, write answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the evidence for this thought? Against it?

  2. Am I basing this thought on facts or feelings?

  3. Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? What assumptions am I making?

  4. Could other people have different interpretations? What would I tell a friend who is experiencing this same issue?

  5. What are the consequences if this thought was true? What are the consequences for different interpretations?

There are more Socratic questions that I will link in the Read More section below.


🚲 Here’s an example

  1. Write down the thought or scenario that is causing you stress.

    My wife was supposed to be home by now and she’s not and it’s raining really bad. What if she got in a car crash and is dead?? I can’t do this without her.

  2. What is the evidence for this thought? Against it?

    For: She is usually home by this time. I can see that the rain is bad. She hasn’t texted me back.

    Against: She never texts while driving. Rain causes traffic which could be making her late. Work has been crazy for her recently so that could be making her late also.

  3. Am I basing this thought on facts or feelings?

    Mostly feelings, I guess. It’s a fact that she is late and that it’s raining but I have no evidence about why she is late.

  4. Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? What assumptions am I making?

    I could be, yeah. I’m assuming the worst. I’m assuming she has left work. I’m assuming she has been in a car crash. I’m assuming that it was a bad car crash. I’m assuming she is dead.

  5. Could other people have different interpretations? What would I tell a friend who is experiencing this same issue?

    Yeah. Our son would probably say that mom is stuck at work and probably hasn’t left yet. My mother-in-law would probably come up with an even scarier scenario. Everyone has a different interpretation I guess.

  6. What are the consequences if this thought was true? What are the consequences for different interpretations?

    If this was true then my life would be over. I would never recover. But if I considered other interpretations, like if she was stuck at work, then I would have nothing to stress about. I guess it’s not helpful to stress until I know for sure.


📺 (Amazing) Video Demonstration

“I waved to a friend across the street and they didn’t wave back. I guess they don’t like me.”


✍️ Try now

When was the last time you felt like the worst case scenario was likely to happen?

Grab a pen and paper or download a mental health app to give this a try. You cannot do this exercise “in your head”. Writing the answer is critical because it makes you more likely to reinforce what you learn during the exercise.


🔬 From researchers

  • A 2017 study of 150 people determined that therapy (CBT) which featured Socratic Questioning was rated as more helpful, empathic, and autonomy supporting. — Department of Psychology, University of New England

  • A 2015 study revealed that the use of Socratic questioning “predicted greater reductions in depressive symptoms”. — Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University


🌆 Conclusion

Socratic questioning is one of the few exercises that can bring quick relief to stress. It’s a powerful exercise that takes practice, but it’s worth it.


📖 Read more

Socratic questioning (psychology): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_questioning#Psychology

More Socratic questions: http://problemsolving.engin.umich.edu/strategy/cthinking.htm

Worksheet [pdf]: https://onemindtherapy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Socratic-Questioning-.pdf


📱 Practice more

Download Bold CBT. It’s an iOS app that I made with dozens of mental health exercises like this.


🙏 Thank you

I’m grateful that you read this far! Please send me an email to tell me what you think. Your feedback makes the newsletter better for everyone.

  • john@boldCBT.com

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