Catastrophizing is a way of thinking called a ‘cognitive distortion.’ A person who catastrophizes usually sees an unfavorable outcome to an event and then decides that if this outcome does happen, the results will be a disaster.
Here are some examples of catastrophizing:
- “If I fail this test, I will never pass school, and I will be a total failure in life.”
- “If I don’t recover quickly from this procedure, I will never get better, and I will be disabled my entire life.”
- “If my partner leaves me, I will never find anyone else, and I will never be happy again.”
Catastrophizing can lead to depression in some individuals. Fortunately, there are several methods to address the condition and avoid catastrophizing.
Causes of Catastrophizing
While there are several potential causes and contributors to catastrophizing, most fall into one of three categories. These are:
- Ambiguity: Ambiguity or being vague can open a person up to catastrophic thinking. An example would be getting a text message from a friend or partner that reads, “We need to talk.” This vague message could be something positive or negative, but a person cannot know which of these it is with just the information they have. So they may start to imagine the very worst news.
- Value: Relationships and situations that a person holds in high value can result in a tendency to catastrophize. When something is particularly significant to a person, the concept of loss or difficulty can be harder to deal with. An example would be applying for a job that a person wants. They may start to imagine the great disappointment, anxiety, and depression they will experience if they do not get the job before the organization has even made any decisions.
- Fear: Fear, especially irrational fear, plays a big part in catastrophizing. If a person is scared of going to the doctor, they could start to think about all the bad things a doctor could tell them, even if they are just going for a check-up. A person may also experience catastrophizing related to a medical condition or past event in their life.
Tips to Manage Catastrophic Thinking
1. Acknowledging That Unpleasant Things Happen
Life is full of challenges as well as good and bad days. Just because one day is bad does not mean all days will be bad.
2. Understand That Thoughts Do Not Define You.
Often, part of what sets off a downward spiral in motion is not just our negative thoughts (“The whole world has gone to pot!”), but the fact that we’re also very upset about having those thoughts in the first place (“Why do I always think like this? What is wrong with me?”). This makes for something of a double-whammy. Many of us are trained to believe that we are defined by our thoughts, so we believe that they either must be true or that they say something fundamentally important about ourselves.
Try observing your thoughts as an unbiased third party: “I’m having the thought that the world is hopeless. OK, I think that way sometimes, usually because of the mood I’m in. But like any thought, it will go eventually. It doesn’t have to be true or represent who I am. I’m going to sit with it and watch it pass.”
3. Get Physical.
Fresh air. Chopping vegetables. A run. The feel of garden soil on your fingers. A deep breath. A particularly good round of stretching. A hot bath. Hammering a nail. The soothing repetition of knitting or embroidery. These physical motions have all been shown to help people reduce anxious distress at the moment. This is, in part, because they bring you into the present by helping you interact in the here and now with your surroundings, making it harder to dwell on the past or the future.
When you take a walk and see those individually changing leaves on that spectacular maple, you feel more clearly anchored in your world. It’s mindfulness at its best, and the more physical you can be, the more you may benefit from exercise-induced endorphin surges as well.
4. Sleep. Yes, Sleep.
We all know that we feel worse when we are sleep-deprived: It often makes us more irritable and unable to think clearly. We may be aware of how this affects our interactions with others, but we often are less aware of how much it can distort our perspective on the world. There is evidence that sleep deprivation makes us more hypersensitive to threats, which leads us to more negative interpretations of things; the result is that we become focused on molehills which we then turn into mountains.
Evolution likely has bred this into us: A sleep-deprived organism is more vulnerable to predators, so our brains overcompensate and go on high alert. In modern times, however, this can do more harm than good.