Do you tend to focus on the worst-case scenario or spend time thinking about how terribly things will go? Catastrophizing is a common component of anxiety and depression. Learn how to address it.
What Is Catastrophizing?
Imagine this situation: you’re running late to catch a train to visit some friends, and despite rushing to catch it, you miss it by a few minutes. The next train isn’t for another 90 minutes, which means you’ll be late and miss part of your visit.
Most people would agree that this situation is stressful, anxiety-provoking, or disappointing. But catastrophizing might worsen your feelings by creating thoughts like these:
- “If I don’t make this train the whole visit is going to be ruined!”
- “Something bad will probably happen to me while I’m waiting for the next train.”
- “Getting there late is going to make them want to stop being friends with me.”
- “I hate being late. I’m going to feel awful about this for days and days.”
In the above example, it’s easy to see that catastrophic thinking makes the situation feel even worse than it is. And although each of those thoughts is understandable, they have an unhelpful impact on mood and feelings.
Catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, is a common type of cognitive distortion in which you assume a very negative outcome. Everyone thinks catastrophically at times, especially if you’re already feeling anxious, nervous, or overwhelmed. But when you get stuck in the trap of catastrophizing, it’s easy for feelings of anxiety and despair to take over.
Catastrophizing takes an uncomfortable experience and makes it feel dire, unbearable, or both – or that things will lead to disaster. It leads you to focus on the worst possible outcomes, and assume that these are likely to come true. It also makes it seem like you won’t be able to handle the way things go.
How Does Catastrophizing Cause Problems?
Cognitive distortions like catastrophizing can have a negative impact on your mood. This is because how you think about things influences how you feel. Catastrophic thinking can affect you in the following ways:
- Overestimating the likelihood of bad outcomes. Catastrophizing makes you believe that bad outcomes are more likely to occur than they actually may be. Over time, you can become prone to always “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
- Selective attention. Catastrophic thinking makes you focus more on the worst potential outcomes or consequences, and makes them seem even more awful. So, over time you can develop a habit of “awfulizing” or just assuming things are going to be as bad as they could be.
When your thinking makes you pay attention to all the things that could go wrong, zero in on the worst among those, and believe that they’re the most likely to come true, it can lower or worsen your mood and contribute to unpleasant emotions like anxiety, fear, and despair.
How to Break Out of Catastrophizing
As with all cognitive distortions, there’s no way to completely get rid of catastrophic thinking or prevent yourself from getting stuck in this common trap. But there are many ways to lessen the impact of catastrophizing and improve how you feel. For example:
- Building awareness/recognition. If you’re more aware of catastrophic thinking and can notice when it’s shaping your thoughts, you can try to shift your perspective. Mindfulness practice is one effective way to improve this awareness.
- Estimating the likelihood of outcomes more realistically. The most concerning potential outcomes aren’t always the most likely. Focusing on the most likely outcomes, rather than the worst ones, can help reduce feelings of anxiety and dread.
- Thinking through how you can handle the worst “what ifs.” Letting yourself thoughtfully consider how you might cope if the worst does come true can make you feel more able to handle that situation if it actually comes up.
Changing your thinking isn’t always easy to do – in fact, it’s usually pretty tough! Fortunately, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven strategies that can help you break out of catastrophic thinking. Catastrophizing is common for many people experiencing anxiety and despair, and undoing it is a common focus of CBT. Working with a CBT therapist can help with anxiety and help you catastrophize less.
Please contact us if catastrophizing and anxiety are contributing to challenges in your life.