How to Stop Catastrophizing - an image of a woman holding her hands near to her temples, indicating that she is anxious

Everyone worries every now and then. It’s normal. But catastrophic thinking is more than just experiencing negative thoughts – and it can be debilitating to live with. Plus, understanding how to stop catastrophizing isn’t always a straightforward process.

In this article, you’ll find information on what catastrophic thinking is, what causes it, which mental health conditions it’s closely associated with and advice on how to stop catastrophizing.


What is Catastrophic Thinking?

Catastrophic thinking is a pattern of thinking where someone immediately assumes the worst-case scenario or believes that a situation is far worse than it actually is. It’s a common cognitive distortion in anxiety and stress-related conditions.

There is typically an exaggerated focus on potential disasters, which can cause significant distress, anxiety, stress, and fear.

People who are prone to catastrophic thinking often believe that extreme and terrible consequences will follow even minor or unlikely events, which can disrupt day-to-day life and functioning, as it impairs rational decision-making and problem-solving abilities by overshadowing logical assessments with fear-driven expectations.


What Causes Catastrophizing Thoughts?

In short, there isn’t a definitive answer to what can cause it.

For some, these thoughts stem from previous experiences of trauma or significant stress, where the brain has learned to anticipate danger as a protective mechanism. For others, patterns of negative thinking may be learned behaviours from observing family members or significant others who have similar thinking styles.

Psychological factors, such as an underlying tendency towards anxiety or depression, can also predispose people to catastrophize. Experiencing chronic pain, fatigue and even certain situations can also cause feelings of uncertainty or lack of control, which can trigger catastrophic thinking in individuals who are already prone to anxiety.


Common Signs of Catastrophic Thinking

See below for some common signs that may indicate a person is experiencing catastrophic thought patterns.

  • Jumping to conclusions: Without little to no evidence, you assume the worst-case scenarios are going to happen. For example, if you send a text and don’t get an immediate reply, you think the other person is angry with you.
  • Overgeneralization: Believing that because something bad happened once, it will happen every time in similar situations. For example, if you had a negative experience at a certain location, such as at a restaurant, you might believe that you’ll always have a negative experience if you go back.
  • Focusing on the negative: Even when there are positive outcomes, you might fixate on the smallest negative detail. This could be replaying a minor critique in your head about an otherwise positive job review.
  • Ignoring the Probability: Overestimating the likelihood that something bad will happen. For example, being convinced you something that a job interview didn’t go well, even though there isn’t anything rational to suggest it didn’t.
  • Magnifying the Consequences: Believing irrational thoughts about the outcome of an event will be much more catastrophic than it realistically could be.
  • Feeling Helpless: Feeling like there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome of a situation, even when there are steps you could take to influence the results positively.
  • Difficulty in Accepting Uncertainty: Struggling to cope with not knowing how things will turn out and automatically assuming the worst possible outcome.


Understanding Pain Catastrophizing

Similar to catastrophic thoughts, catastrophizing pain is more closely associated with health anxiety disorders.

Pain catastrophizing is a psychological pattern of negative and emotional responses to anticipated or actual pain. Individuals who catastrophize about pain tend to describe the threat or seriousness of the pain signals they experience to be more severe than they are, and/or feel helpless against the pain.

Pain catastrophizing is often seen in fibromyalgia patients or those who experience chronic pain conditions. One thing that should be clear, however, is that this does not mean that what they are experiencing isn’t real.

For example, fibromyalgia patients might catastrophize pain, meaning they perceive their pain as much worse than it might objectively be or feel particularly negative about their ability to manage it. This can happen because the condition itself makes the body more sensitive to pain signals.


Catastrophic Thoughts vs Pain Catastrophizing

Although pain catastrophizing is a specific form of catastrophic thinking applied to pain, catastrophic thoughts can be about any aspect of life and do not necessarily involve pain or physical sensations.

The key difference between the two is the focus and context. Pain catastrophizing specifically concerns negative expectations and exaggerated reactions related to pain, affecting how individuals experience and manage pain. Catastrophic thoughts can be about any dire prediction or expectation of failure across many aspects of life, so it’s not limited to physical pain.

Both, however, share the same exaggerated negative thoughts and can significantly impact someone’s emotional and physical well-being.


Mental Health Conditions Associated With Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking is closely associated with several mental health conditions. It is commonly seen in individuals who have been diagnosed with:

  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Depression.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Borderline personality disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


Tips on How to Stop Catastrophizing

Below, you’ll find several strategies to help stop or reduce catastrophizing. And remember, changing thought patterns takes time and practice, so remember to take it at your own pace.

  • Recognise the thought: The first step is trying to acknowledge when you might be catastrophizing. If you’re able to learn how to identify irrational thoughts, it can help you begin to address them.
  • Evidence-based thinking: Challenge your thoughts by asking yourself what evidence you have that supports or contradicts these thoughts. This can help you take a step back and view the situation more realistically.
  • Try to consider the odds: Try to stay in the present moment. Assess the likelihood of the worst-case scenario actually happening. You’ll find that (most likely) the chance is much lower than your feelings might be suggesting to you.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation: Practicing a healthy coping mechanism can help with emotion regulation and staying in the present. Mindfulness and grounding exercises, for example, encourage you to observe your thoughts without judgment.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a highly effective treatment for changing negative thought patterns, including catastrophizing. A professional will help you work through traumatic events and develop more balanced and healthier ways of thinking.
  • Use coping statements: Replace catastrophic thoughts with more balanced statements. For example, instead of thinking, “I will fail,” try and say to yourself, “I will do my best, and my best is enough.”
  • Limit exposure to stressful information: Constant exposure to negative news or social media can fuel catastrophizing. Limit your intake and focus on positive or neutral information.
  • Connect with others: Sharing your fears and concerns with trusted friends or family members can provide perspective and reduce the intensity of your thoughts.
  • Physical exercise: Regular physical activity can help reduce anxiety and improve mood, making it easier to manage catastrophic thinking.
  • Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can increase anxiety and negative thinking. Ensuring you get enough rest can help manage these thoughts.
  • Professional help: If catastrophizing is significantly impacting your life, seeking help from a mental health professional might be worth it for you. They can offer effective talk therapy options (e.g. cognitive therapy as discussed above), as well as personalised strategies and support to manage feelings of hopelessness and thought patterns.


Reach Out for Support Today

If you are worried that you (or a loved one) are living with an underlying mental health condition or may be experiencing unhealthy thought patterns, addressing catastrophizing is the first step. Reach out to us today for advice.