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Everyone thinks negatively from time to time including children. However, there are people who engage in exaggerated negative thinking, also known as catastrophizing, almost every day.
Honestly, I struggled with an exaggerated thought pattern in my early adult life. I lost count of how many times loved ones told me to “Stop making a mountain out of a molehill.” In other words, quit making a small problem seem much bigger than it actually is. Sounds familiar?
While an occasional gloomy outlook is normal, catastrophic thinking every day can harm your mental health. Instead of experiencing and enjoying life as it comes, you find yourself constantly worried or anxious that something bad will happen.
Interestingly, you might be unaware that you're prone to think the worse. To help you change that mindset, I will explain what catastrophizing is, how to recognize its happening, and ways to control it.
What Is Catastrophic Thinking?
The term “catastrophizing,” also called catastrophic thinking, was made famous by American psychiatrist Aaron Beck. He labeled it a form of cognitive distortion that entails a negative, over-the-top way of thinking based on inaccurate perceptions of reality instead of facts.
The thought process involves predicting a negative outcome and then jumping to the conclusion that the outcome will be disastrous. Psychologists call it irrational thinking since there's usually no evidence to support the belief that a catastrophe will occur.
Those who magnify their negative thoughts tend to imagine themselves in a horrific accident, dying, never finding love, or losing loved ones.
Here are some examples to help you better understand what catastrophic thinking looks like:
What Causes You to Catastrophize?
The habit of overestimating negative outcomes may result from:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has also been identified as a common reason for expecting the worst to happen, although there are other possible outcomes. Thinking the worse can also trigger PTSD. The fact that you experienced something significantly unpleasant or traumatic doesn't mean it will happen again.
People also resort to catastrophic thinking as a coping strategy. It's their way of ensuring they don't re-experience a painful situation. Coping this way can lead to chronic avoidance and isolation which, incidentally, are factors associated with loneliness and depression.
Unhealthy parenting styles may also explain why some of us view things in a skewed way. Perhaps your mom or dad had a habit of overreacting to harmless situations, harshly criticizing you, or expecting you to be perfect.
Psychological Conditions Linked to Catastrophic Thinking
Being wired to predict or expect the worst is a type of Automatic Negative Thought (ANT) that keeps ruining your life experiences. Here's why. Negative thoughts prompt a release of brain chemicals that make you feel sad or down. This leads to more discouraging thoughts that are blown out of proportion. Before you know it, you feel as if you're spiraling out of control.
Not only that, catastrophizing influences how we behave, see others, experience moments, and view the future. However, acting on irrational thoughts can, and does, lead to unpleasant outcomes.
Can you imagine the long-term effects of always thinking the worst will happen?
Numerous studies on the subject, including a 2011 study done on children, concluded that anxiety, hopelessness, and depression are among mental health conditions related to catastrophizing. Other studies link it to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Link to anxiety
Those who experience anxiety have an irrational fear of danger. This is often accompanied by a sense of impending doom about a particular situation, whether real or imagined. If they start having a panic attack as a result, they may say something like, “I think I'm having a heart attack. I'm going to die! One worst-case scenario after another.
Link to depression
Depression sets in from prolonged feelings of sadness and helplessness. Overestimating the likelihood of negative events can cause people to retreat into isolation to protect themselves. It doesn't usually matter if they're attempting to avoid something that is unrealistic or unlikely to happen. However, it is well-established that social withdrawal increases the risk of loneliness and depression.
Link to OCD
Medical researchers also found a connection between discouraging thoughts and OCD. People living with OCD engage in obsessive thinking and behavior that is largely due to fears of a specific harmful outcome. As a result, they respond compulsively to prevent what they fear or minimize its psychological effects. An example is repeatedly cleaning an area over and over (compulsive action) in order to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
How to Know You're Catastrophizing
Self-awareness can help you spot when you're blowing things out of proportion. Check your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Are they realistic? If you're thinking about something and you suddenly start to feel stressed (fight-or-flight response), anxious or depressed, chances are it's caused by amplifying the situation or anticipating a disastrous outcome. Other signs are racing thoughts, overthinking, and feeling doomed.
7 Steps to Control Catastrophic Thinking
Regularly forecasting and expecting terrible consequences eventually becomes your default way of thinking. The habit is difficult to kick unless you intentionally work to keep it under control. I'm inviting you to begin reversing the tendency to magnify every situation by taking these actionable steps.
1. Assess your thoughts
Bring awareness to the situation and how you're viewing it. What are your thoughts? Ask yourself, “Am I catastrophizing right now?” The answer might be, “Yes,” if you're assessing things in a way that's irrational or farfetched.
Checking in with yourself enables you to minimize or reframe the way you're looking at the situation. In addition, challenging or dismissing unhealthy thoughts helps get rid of negative emotions, such as fear, that cause you to feel stressed, anxious, or depressed.
Experts agree that self-monitoring leads to increased awareness of your thoughts and how they affect your mood and behavior.
2. Look for contradicting evidence
Ask yourself if there's proof to confirm that your thought, belief, or suspicion is true. Even if it's true, does it mean it will lead to something devastating?
Perhaps you can remember a time in the past when you had this thought but the end result was positive. No one got angry at you, you didn't lose your job, your wife didn't divorce you, and neither did your friend die. You convinced yourself it would happen, but it didn't.
Another method is to come up with at least two to three positive outcomes for the same situation. Now, think of them as evidence that goes against what you're expecting will occur.
3. Practice realistic thinking
When our thoughts spiral out of control, we are more likely to imagine results that are farfetched, disproportionate, improbable, or unrealistic. Realistic thinking means looking at the situation from all angles (the positive, the negative, and the neutral) before making conclusions.
Doing so gives you a chance to challenge negative thoughts and reframe them. Cognitive reframing means shifting your mindset by looking at things from different angles. Your conclusion is more likely to be balanced and reasonable.
Try shifting from a worst-case scenario mindset to an everything-will-be-okay mindset, even if you don't yet have evidence to support that belief. Looking on the bright side of things is also an effective way to manage anxiety and prevent depression.
4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a technique similar to meditation, that helps you become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The primary goal of the practice is teaching you how to observe your thoughts without judging or concluding whether they are good, true, or valid.
Over time, you'll develop greater self-awareness. Awareness of the present moment enables you to pull yourself back before your thoughts get out of control. In fact, mindfulness is so effective that psychotherapists recommend it as a strategy for reducing stress and taming overwhelming thoughts that trigger anxiety.
5. Journal your thoughts
Journaling is a practice that may help you cope with catastrophic thinking and other harmful habits that impact mental health. Simply write down your thoughts and feelings in a book or journal. Not only are you externalizing, but you can also process your thoughts to understand why you're making the situation out to be worse than it is.
Journaling also helps you gain control of emotions such as uncertainty and irrational fears related to failure, sickness, losing your home, or losing a loved one.
Close the journal and reread what you wrote once the negative feelings pass. Seeing and reading what's written might help you make sense of your thoughts and be more mindful of what you think. Don't be surprised if you start laughing at yourself for thinking so extremely.
Remember that no matter how true or valid your thoughts may appear, they are simply just thoughts.
6. Challenge negative self-talk
Self-talk refers to the things you think about and tell yourself. When that inner dialogue turns negative, you might begin thinking in ways that limit your ability to reach your potential.
Speaking negatively about yourself and your abilities might be grounded in fears, such as fear of failure. For example, you may tell yourself that you're not going to get the job because you don't have all the requirements. Therefore, you're a failure and your life is doomed.
Reverse your thinking and choose to believe that you CAN, you have what it takes, and that things will turn out in your favor. You can even throw in some positive self-affirmations such as, “I am stronger than my fears” or “I have everything I need for success.”
7. Find out your triggers
Starting a self-awareness journey many years ago has helped me deal with unhealthy thinking, behaviors, and ways of coping. I still occasionally engage in catastrophic thinking, but more out of fear that my kids could get hurt while playing. Whenever I catch myself thinking the worse, I immediately stop and ask, “Why am I doing this?”
The answer to your WHY will help you to identify what triggers those feelings that something terrible is about to happen. Ask yourself, “Why am I thinking this way?” Is it because of a past painful experience, anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, anxiety, rejection, or hopelessness?
Some people get triggered after drinking alcohol or having a fight with their partner. Knowing what triggers exaggerated thinking is an aspect of self-awareness and is key to changing that behavior.
Three Statements to Calm Your Impulse to Catastrophize
- “It’s not happening now.” While it is possible that something could go wrong in the future, it's important to recognize and acknowledge that it isn't happening now. There's also a chance it may never happen. Repeating the statement makes you feel calm, safe, and reassured.
- “Whatever happens, I can cope.” Here, you're basically acknowledging that undesirable things can happen but, if they do, you have the inner strength and resilience to overcome them.
- “I can stop this.” Saying this statement out loud sends a powerful message to your brain that you're in control of your thoughts. Believe that you can stop and take the seven steps explained above to reinforce the belief.
When to Speak with a Therapist
You could consider talking with a therapist if you tried these steps for several weeks or months, but they aren't helping. Bear in mind that catastrophizing is a form of cognitive distortion and isn't recognized as a mental health condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.
However, a therapist can provide cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help change the way you think. Your therapist will work with you to identify and manage triggers, in an effort to reduce their effects on your mood and behavior. Therapy also involves assisting you with:
In addition, your therapist may prescribe medication to help you manage anxiety or depression symptoms.
Final Thoughts on Controlling Catastrophic Thinking and Catastrophizing
Always jumping to the worst possible conclusion keeps us from really experiencing the joys of life. We aren't able to tell the future. We can guess or speculate but, without proof, we can only draw conclusions that might not be logical or reasonable.
I'm encouraging you to relax. Allow things you have no control over to take their course. Choose to expect great things and speak positive words into the atmosphere to attract the outcomes you desire. By the way, do you know The Four Reasons Why Overthinking and Depression Are on the Rise? Read to find out more… you may be surprised.