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Catastrophizing – Always Assume the Worst? Why You Need to Stop

by Andrea M. Darcy

Known to immediately assume the worse? You likely have a problem with catastrophizing.

What is catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing (or ‘catastrophising’ if you are using the British spelling) is what is known in psychology as a ‘cognitive distortion‘. This means a habitual and unconscious way of thinking that is not realistic. In this case it’s a habit of negative exaggeration.

Always assuming the worse case scenario, you will likely also turn little problems into big ones. This means you anticipate issues so much that you actually create them.

Examples of catastrophising

Examples of catastrophizing can mean that you:

  • receive bad feedback at work and are convinced your career is over
  • fail an exam and are sure you have no future
  • decide when your partner criticises what you are wearing that the next step is a breakup
  • panic when your child has an earache and rush them to the hospital.

Why do you do it?

Negative thinking can be a learned habit. If you grew up with a parent who constantly expected the worse from every situation, you might have just assumed this was the way to see the world.

Catastrophizing can also be connected to a difficult past. If something happened that made you feel the world is dangerous, then your brain can be programmed to keep looking for danger.

It is connected to anxiety and anxiety disorders. Of course then it becomes a question of which came first. Anxiety causes vigilance, but catastrophising causes anxiety.

Am I stressed or depressed online quiz

When it comes to past trauma and anxiety, catastrophizing can be something you unconsciously use to actually try and make yourself feel better. If you assume the worse, you’ll feel less threatened if something bad really does happen, right? Of course assuming the worse all the time means you simply can’t live a happy, balanced life.

Catastrophizing and personality disorders

In some cases a problem with catastrophising all the time is a sign you have a personality disorder. This means you behave and think in ways that are different than the norm.

Borderline personality disorder, for example, sees you having a strong fear of abandonment that makes you always assume the worse about others.

Histrionic personality disorder involves a driving need to be the centre of attention, and exaggerated stories are one of the ways you’ll achieve that.

[Curious to know more about personality disorders? Read our comprehensive Guide to Personality Disorders.]

Why do you need to stop catastrophising?

You could argue that catastrophizing, like everything, has a useful side. It means you are never disappointed when bad things do happen.

But it comes with too many negative consequences to make it worthwhile. These include:

Catastrophic thinking can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think negative thoughts, you spike your stress hormones such as cortisol, which affect your ability to think and act clearly. This means it’s more likely things will go wrong.

So just how do I stop catastrophizing?

Here are a few ways you can begin to work at changing this distorted way of thinking that sees you unable to feel good about yourself and life.

1. Learn how to differentiate a thought and reality.

Try writing down your thoughts for a few weeks. It can help to set a timer to go off each hour so you can catch yourself thinking. At the end of each day look at what you have recorded.

  • How realistic is each thought?
  • Is it a fact?
  • What proof do you have this thought is true, and what proof do you have it isn’t?
  • Can you find a situation from the past which shows that this sort of situation can work out just fine – for example, a time at work you made a big mistake but it didn’t affect your career?

2. Try mindfulness if you start catastrophizing.

If you find it impossible to catch your thoughts in the first place, mindfulness can be a game changer. A daily practise that sees you bringing your attention to your thoughts and feelings right here and now, it also lowers your stress levels. You can learn all you need to know in our comprehensive Guide to Mindfulness.

3. Feel it out.

Catastrophising can be the mind’s way of hiding from painful emotions. Ask yourself, what is the feeling behind this thought I am having? Am I feeling nervous, rejected, sad? Can I deal with the feeling first?

4. Talk to the page before your friends.

Before you call all your friends and rant about your latest horrible situation, take a moment to pour your thoughts out in a journal. This can de-charge your emotions and help you see more clearly, whereas immediately over-talking can leave you more worried than ever.

5. Consider a round of therapy.

It’s very hard to stop habits by ourselves and sometimes seeking support is the best step we can take. A professional counsellor or psychotherapist can also let you know if your habit of catastrophising is related to other psychological issues that might also need to be dealt with.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in particular focuses on helping you recognise and take charge of your negative thinking. If you work with a CBT therapist they will provide you with charts where you can track your thoughts, learning to question each one and replace it with a more balanced and realistic view.

Harley Therapy puts you in touch with some of London’s best counsellors and psychotherapists. Not in the UK? We can also connect you with a therapist wherever you are with Online therapy.

Still have a question about catastrophizing? Ask below, we love to hear from you.

Andrea M. Darcy is the editor and lead writer of this site and a mental health advocate with training in counselling and coaching. 

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress, Cognitive Therapy

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