What is Catastrophizing

How to Stop Catastrophizing

We’ve all done it: believed something is far worse than it actually is. This type of cognitive distortion can lead to unnecessary stress and turmoil in our lives, especially since the worst-case scenarios we repeat in our minds are often unlikely to happen.

Catastrophizing has two components:

  1. Assuming an outcome will be negative.

  2. Concluding that if that outcome is indeed negative, it’d be a catastrophe.

Over the years I’ve learned that once people know how to control the urge to catastrophize they can start living a happier and more relaxed life. If you struggle with catastrophizing, here are some tips and techniques you can use to stop these irrational thought patterns.

First, learn how to recognize your catastrophizing

Like so much else in life, the first step to solving this problem is awareness. You have to “catch” yourself in the act of catastrophizing before you can fix it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques can be helpful here, since CBT shows you how to train yourself to recognize and change negative thought patterns.

Consider the true likelihood of your worst case scenario occurring

Because catastrophizing is irrational, it can be helpful to bring some logic and reasoning to the situation.

Let’s assume that you’re concerned about your performance at work, and your thought process goes something like this:

“I’ve fallen behind at work. Now I’ll never have time to get caught up. My boss is going to fire me. I won’t be able to pay my bills. I’ll never find another career opportunity in my field ever again. My life is over!”

You’ll notice that there’s a chain of events. You’re assuming that if one happens the next will certainly follow. When you catch yourself thinking this way it can be helpful to break that chain by assessing the actual likelihood of each catastrophe occurring.

Write down each item in your chain and then give each outcome a value from 1 to 10. 1 means it’s nearly impossible and 10 means the event will surely occur. As you do this, write down some reasons why these things won’t happen.

In this instance, “Now I’ll never have time to get caught up” might receive a 7. That’s pretty high, but what could change the outcome? Could you have a candid conversation with your boss about your workload, emphasizing your traditionally stellar performance?

Figure out how you can stop the worst case scenario from occurring

Catastrophizing can be so scary because it stems from a perceived lack of control in our lives. We feel like we’ve messed up, and now there’s no way to reverse that course. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though! We have far more control than we realize.

With that in mind, try making a list of proactive steps you can take to avoid the outcomes you fear. Using our work example, could you stay late a few nights next week to get caught up, or come in early? Can someone else on your team step in to help?

Try approaching your fears and anxieties with a level head, and see if that makes a difference in your catastrophizing. The results might surprise you.