- Catastrophizing is a thinking pattern that causes you to focus on the negative.
- It often causes people to spiral, imagine the worst possible outcomes, and experience anxiety.
- Recognizing the pattern, questioning your thoughts, and using positive affirmations can help.
It may start with waking up feeling ill and thinking to yourself, “I’m hurting today.” Instead of recognizing that you have a virus or are recovering from a fall, you jump to the worst possible conclusion: The pain is only going to get worse. Then, you take it a step further and think, “This hurting means I’ll never get better.”
This is a classic example of catastrophizing, Reena Patel, a psychologist, said. Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion — an exaggerated thought pattern — where the brain jumps to the worst possible outcome, pushing reason or logic aside.
“It’s fixating on the worst possible outcome and treating it as likely, even when it is not,” Patel said.
Any topic from your health to political news or a work meeting can trigger catastrophic thinking. Here’s what you should know about the pattern, including how to recognize when it’s happening and how to break the cycle of negative thoughts.
Recognizing catastrophizing in your thinking
Before you can address catastrophizing, you need to know when it’s happening.
“Catastrophizing often follows a distinct pattern,” Patel said.
You have a thought and immediately jump from bad to the worst possible outcome. 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 I get a divorce, I will never find anyone else, and I will never be happy again.”
Catastrophizing is based on fear
Morgan Pommells, a trauma therapist, thinks of catastrophizing “as a scary or anxious thought that snowballs out of control,” she said, adding: “The more you think about the snowball, the bigger it gets and the more scary the thoughts become.”
When you catastrophize, you’re weighing the negative outcomes as more likely than positive or neutral outcomes. Pommells calls this “negative forecasting.”
“This is where you are overly assuming that something bad is going to happen and there is simply no chance that a different or perhaps even a positive outcome might occur,” she said.
It can be rooted in trauma
Oftentimes, “people who catastrophize likely have painful past experiences that are informing their thoughts in that very moment,” Pommells said.
In dangerous or life-threatening situations, catastrophizing can even be protective, she said.
“Catastrophic thoughts are your body’s way of alerting you to potential danger,” she said. “This is a resilient survival mechanism that is meant to keep you safe.”
However, Pommells said this warning system can also be “misfiring or over assuming the threat,” which causes catastrophizing in day-to-day life.
How to stop catastrophizing
When you notice yourself catastrophizing, try to stop and break the cycle. Patel recommends saying out loud “Stop,” “No,” or “Enough.”
“These words can break the stream of thoughts and help a person change the course of their thinking,” she said.
Question your thinking
After that pause, you should begin to question your negative assertions, Pommells said.
- “How do I know this to be true?”
- “What if it did all work out?”
- “What experience may be informing this thought?”
“When you can begin to gently question these thoughts, the snowball slows down, and eventually it can fade away,” she said.
Offer yourself a positive outcome
Next, consider what the positive outcomes could be. For example, instead of thinking that you will be kicked out of school for failing a test, consider whether the professor may allow you to do extra credit or offer to connect you with a tutor. If you fear never getting better after an operation, consider that you may be matched with an excellent physical therapist who can help speed up your recovery.
“Instead of thinking about a negative outcome, try to focus on a positive one or even a less-negative option,” Patel said.
Be patient with yourself
People who catastrophize have seen that the worst-case scenario can happen, Patel said. They need to relearn that the worst case won’t always happen.
Using positive affirmations and reminding yourself that you can stop catastrophizing over minor things can help strengthen your ability to interrupt catastrophic thinking.
“When it comes to catastrophic thinking, a person has to believe that they can overcome their tendency to fear the worst,” Patel said.
How to support someone who’s catastrophizing
Telling people who are catastrophizing that everything will be fine, or to “just stop thinking about it,” likely won’t help them, Pommells said.
Instead, emphasize the emotion they’re feeling, whether that’s fear, worry, or helplessness. Pommells said to try saying, “I see how much you’re struggling right now, and it sounds so tough. Keep talking. I am here for you.”