Catastrophizing is something that almost everyone experiences now and then; however, some people have an easier time putting these thoughts aside. In general, catastrophizing is when your mind gets stuck considering all the worst possible outcomes that your brain can come up with.
In and of itself, it is not a medical condition. However, it is a common symptom people experience with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Catastrophizing is a symptom of anxiety, and it can heighten other symptoms making the overall anxiety even worse. In this post, we’re going to break down the mental phenomenon of catastrophizing and provide you with plenty of tips for dealing with these negative thoughts.
- What is catastrophizing
- What causes catastrophic thinking
- How to know when you are catastrophizing
- Tips for coping with catastrophic thinking
- Treatment options to help reduce catastrophic thinking
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What is Catastrophizing?
The word catastrophe means a complete disaster with life-altering, devastating consequences. Individuals who experience catastrophizing see life events this way, obsessing over the worst-case scenario. In most cases, this is not reality, but individuals think the worst will happen without considering other possibilities.
For example, someone may feel like they are not prepared for a test and that they are going to fail the test. The thoughts then begin to spiral down an even more negative path. They believe the failed test will prevent them from graduating. Then, they won’t get a job, and, finally, they’ll be homeless.
This jump from a failed test to homelessness may seem unreasonable, but patients experiencing catastrophizing see it as the only possible outcome. This is known as cognitive distortion.
Who is Commonly Affected By Catastrophizing?
Anyone can fall into catastrophic thinking, but it is most common among young people, teenagers, and children around eight or nine. In 2015 a study analyzed almost 3,000 teenagers and found that those who often catastrophized also had an anxiety disorder.
Catastrophizing is common in patients with generalized anxiety disorder but can also be caused by other mental health conditions, including the following
- OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
- Chronic pain
What Causes Catastrophic Thinking?
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion where individuals focus on the worst-case scenario and exaggerate its potential impact, leading to increased anxiety, fear, and stress. It is often associated with various mental health disorders and depressive and anxious symptoms, including:
- Anxiety Disorders: Individuals with anxiety disorders often catastrophize events or situations they perceive as dangerous or threatening. They may worry excessively about the future, overestimating the likelihood of negative outcomes and underestimating their coping ability.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Catastrophizing is a common symptom of PTSD. Individuals with PTSD may experience flashbacks or nightmares, triggering a catastrophic response. They may also avoid situations that remind them of their trauma, leading to isolation and helplessness.
- Depression: Individuals with depression may also engage in catastrophizing. They may feel hopeless about their future, believing that their situation will never improve, and they may exaggerate the negative aspects of their life.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Catastrophizing can also be a symptom of ADHD. Individuals with ADHD may struggle with impulsivity, leading to impulsive decisions and a heightened sense of risk.
- Chronic Pain: Individuals with chronic pain may also catastrophize their symptoms, believing that their chronic pain will never improve or that they will never be able to manage their chronic pain effectively. This is known as chronic pain catastrophizing.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Catastrophizing can also be associated with OCD. Individuals with OCD may experience intrusive, negative thoughts or obsessions that cause them to worry about catastrophic events, such as causing harm to themselves or others.
Catastrophizing is Not Classified as Its Own Mental Health Disorder
Catastrophizing is not a mental illness but associated with various depressive and anxiety disorders. Individuals with conditions such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and others are more likely to engage in catastrophic thought and focus on the worst possible outcome, which can worsen the symptoms of those conditions.
For example, people with anxiety are often fearful and unreasonably stressed. Catastrophizing and worst-case-scenario thinking can make these feelings worse.
How To Identify Symptoms of Catastrophizing
Catastrophizing shares many symptoms and characteristics with mental health disorders, so identifying can be challenging. Just like mental illnesses, catastrophizing can come on suddenly and quickly spiral out of control. In general, catastrophizing can be identified as extreme feelings of fear and stress closely linked to a collection of thoughts about what is coming in the future or what could happen.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of catastrophizing:
- Feeling anxious
- Racing thoughts
- Extreme stress
- Negative self-talk
- Fear and anger
- Obsessive internet research
- Being stuck in your head
Catastrophizing can occur out of the blue or in anticipation of an upcoming event or situation. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, a healthcare professional can help you cope with negative thinking, whether you are catastrophizing or not.
Get Diagnosed By a Licensed Healthcare Professional
If catastrophizing persists over time and you feel like it negatively impacts your day-to-day life, you should speak with a healthcare provider. A medical professional can help you better understand your catastrophic thinking and determine whether a mental health condition is responsible for your catastrophic thinking.
Tips To Stop Catastrophizing
It can be challenging to prevent catastrophizing, but there are behavioral and cognitive strategies you can incorporate into your everyday life to defeat cognitive distortions, learn cognitive restructuring strategies, and reduce catastrophizing:
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation can help you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions without judgment. By observing your thoughts without reacting to them, you can develop more realistic and positive thought patterns, protecting yourself from catastrophizing thoughts and negative thinking.
- Challenge Your Thoughts: When you notice you’re catastrophizing, try challenging the thought with evidence. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen, and how likely is it?” Then, try to think of evidence that supports or contradicts the thought.
- Reframe Negative Thoughts: Reframe your negative thoughts into more positive or realistic ones. For example, if you’re catastrophizing about a work project, reframe the thought as, “I’ve faced similar challenges before, and I can handle this one too.” This is an essential coping mechanism called cognitive restructuring.
- Seek Social Support: Talking to a trusted friend or family member can help you gain perspective on your thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, sharing your worries with someone else can help you feel less alone and more empowered to tackle them. This is a great tool to stop catastrophizing.
- Engage in Relaxation Techniques: Engaging in relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, can help you reduce your stress levels and gain more control over your thoughts and emotions, making it easier for you to deal with catastrophizing.
- Practice Self-Care: Taking care of your physical and mental health can help you build resilience and cope with stressors that can lead to catastrophizing. This includes getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and engaging in activities that you enjoy. Self-care is essential for stopping catastrophic thinking.
Remember, preventing catastrophizing is a process that takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and celebrate your small victories along the way. If you’re struggling with catastrophic thoughts or other mental health concerns, seek professional help.
Treatments For Those Who Engage in Catastrophic Thinking
Treatment options for catastrophizing typically involve a combination of therapies, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. In CBT, individuals learn to identify and challenge their catastrophic thoughts, replacing them with more realistic and positive ones.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT helps individuals develop psychological flexibility by learning to accept their thoughts and emotions without judgment. ACT can help individuals develop more effective coping strategies for managing their catastrophic thoughts.
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT): MBCT is a type of therapy that combines mindfulness meditation with cognitive-behavioral techniques. MBCT can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, reduce stress, and develop positive thought patterns.
- Psychodynamic Therapy: Psychodynamic therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on exploring unconscious patterns of thought and behavior. In psychodynamic therapy, individuals can gain insight into the root causes of their catastrophic thoughts and develop more effective coping strategies.
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help manage symptoms of catastrophizing, such as anxiety or depression. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are commonly used to treat catastrophizing.
- Group Therapy: Group therapy can provide a supportive environment for individuals to share their experiences and learn from others struggling with similar challenges. Group therapy can also allow individuals to practice new coping strategies in a safe and supportive setting.
*Note, Klarity only offers medication treatment to help people cope with catastrophizing, anxiety disorders, and other mental health issues.
It’s important to note that treatment for catastrophizing will vary depending on the individual’s needs and the severity of their symptoms. If you’re struggling with catastrophic thoughts or other mental health concerns, seeking help from a mental health professional who can provide personalized treatment recommendations is important.
Seek Help And Get Diagnosed By A Licensed Professional on Klarity Today!
Do you spend most days worrying and panicking about the future? No one should be constantly overwhelmed by negative thoughts and expectations for upcoming events.
Klarity can connect you with an experienced, licensed professional who can determine whether your catastrophizing is related to anxiety disorders or other mental health issues and find a treatment option to help prevent catastrophic thinking.
Book an appointment with an anxiety-trained specialist within the next 48 hours. All you need to do to get started is take our brief, 2-min self-evaluation.
Michelle Pugle. “Understanding Catastrophizing and How to Stop It” Very Well Health.
Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA. “How to Stop Catastrophizing”. Medical News Today.
“Why ‘Catastrophizing’ is Common in OCD”. Pinnacle Counseling and Testing Center.
Laura Petrini and Lars Arendt-Nielsen. “Understanding Pain Catastrophizing: Putting Pieces Together” Frontiers In.
Tamara Rosier. ADHD Catastrophizing in Times of Crisis: What to Do When Fear Spirals” Attitude Mag
“Catastrophizing” Psychology Today