October 19, 2023
Everyone is guilty of occasionally thinking that the worst possible outcome is going to happen when imagining a future situation. But doing it all the time can have a serious impact on your daily life. This distorted way of thinking is known as catastrophizing.
Imagining worst-case scenarios is normal and serves a purpose. Envisioning a bad outcome causes your brain to come up with ways of avoiding it.
However, this type of thinking becomes a problem when you do it obsessively when there’s no rational reason for it. For example, you’re performing well in your job, but you think you’re going to get fired every time your boss asks to speak to you. As if that scenario isn’t distressing enough, catastrophizing can lead you to imagining even more extreme outcomes, such as believing that being fired will cause you to never be able to get another job, ultimately leaving you broke and incapable of supporting your family.
The exact causes of catastrophizing aren’t clear. Some experts believe it may be a coping mechanism that people learn from family members and other people close to them. It could also be caused by an experience or brain chemistry.
Although it’s not a mental health condition, catastrophizing can be associated with some, including:
• Anxiety disorders
• Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
• Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
In addition to being a symptom of those conditions, these negative thought patterns can lead to or increase the severity of some mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and depression.
Catastrophic thinking has also been linked to fatigue and chronic pain. Focusing so heavily on pain or discomfort can intensify the experience of these conditions.
One key for dealing with catastrophizing is being able to recognize that you’re doing it. Thinking, “I’m telling myself that I’m a failure,” rather than, “I am a failure,” may provide you with enough emotional distance from the negative thoughts to rationally assess your situation and think more clearly.
Breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, and meditating also may be useful for dealing with catastrophic thinking.
• Breathing exercises can calm your body, allowing you to disassociate yourself from negative thoughts.
• Mindfulness exercises are a great way to bring yourself back to the present and away from the negative futures you envision when you catastrophize.
• Meditating can help reduce anxiety, which may lead to catastrophizing less.
Writing down your thoughts when you catastrophize may help you become more aware of when you’re doing it. As you keep a log of your thoughts, you’ll be able to more easily identify the patterns that trigger catastrophic thinking.
Scheduling time for yourself to worry can also work. When you start imagining a worst-case scenario, you can make a mental or physical note of what’s troubling you and come back to it later. This may help you snap out of catastrophizing sessions. And when you do revisit the thought, you may find out that the thing you were worried about is less threatening than it seemed earlier.
Practicing self-care can also be a helpful way to catastrophize less often and/or severely. That includes eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, maintaining a network of family and friends you can talk to about your problems, and getting involved in activities that interest you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective way to treat catastrophic thinking. This form of talk therapy can provide you with strategies for recognizing distorted thinking patterns, coping with stressful situations, and facing your fears head on. Other types of therapy that may be useful in dealing with catastrophizing include:
• Rational emotive behavior therapy, which can help you identify, challenge, and replace self-defeating thoughts, such as those produced by catastrophizing.
• Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which can help you control your thoughts and identify irrational and negative thinking.
• Dialectical behavior therapy, which can show you healthy ways to recognize and cope with your emotions before they spiral into catastrophizing.
• Acceptance and commitment therapy, which attempts to provide you with the skills to detach yourself from your emotions so you can view the world more objectively.
Catastrophizing can be a challenging habit to deal with — especially if it stems from other mental or physical health conditions. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools available to help you manage it.