Catastrophising, in the context of worrying about future outcomes, refers to the tendency to imagine and expect the worst possible scenarios. It involves magnifying the potential negative consequences of a situation and underestimating the likelihood of positive outcomes.
Catastrophising often involves excessive and irrational worry about what might happen in the future, leading to heightened anxiety and distress. A person may dwell on these imagined worst-case scenarios, despite there being no evidence to suggest that such outcomes are likely.
Catastrophising is a cognitive distortion — a thinking pattern that distorts reality and fuels anxiety. It can contribute to increased stress and anxiety levels, decreased problem-solving abilities, and a negative impact on overall well-being. Recognising and addressing catastrophising thoughts is important for managing anxiety and maintaining a healthier perspective on potential future outcomes.
Here are some examples of catastrophising in everyday life:
1. Social Interactions:
Believing that if someone doesn't respond to your text message immediately, they must be angry or upset with you.
Assuming that if someone cancels plans with you, it means they no longer want to be friends.
Thinking that if someone doesn't smile or greet you, they must dislike you.
2. Work or College:
Believing that if your boss or teacher gives you constructive criticism, it means they think you're incompetent.
Assuming that if a colleague or classmate doesn't invite you to a social event, it means they don't want to be around you.
Thinking that if you make a mistake or receive negative feedback, it will lead to severe consequences like losing your job or failing a class.
3. Romantic Relationships:
Believing that if your partner doesn't respond to your message right away, they must be cheating or losing interest in you.
Assuming that if your partner spends time with friends or family without you, it means they don't value your relationship.
Thinking that if your partner disagrees with you or expresses dissatisfaction, it means they no longer love you.
It's important to note that catastrophising often involves jumping to extreme conclusions without considering alternative explanations or evidence to the contrary. Challenging these catastrophic thoughts can help in managing and reducing catastrophising tendencies. Here are some steps you can take to stop catastrophising:
1. Recognise the pattern
Recognising the pattern of catastrophising involves developing self-awareness and paying attention to your thoughts and emotional reactions. Here are some strategies to help you become aware of when you are engaging in catastrophising thoughts:
Mindfulness and self-monitoring: This involves observing your thoughts and emotions without judgment. Notice any recurring thoughts that involve catastrophising or excessive worry about the future.
Keep a thought journal: Start a journal where you can write down your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. Whenever you catch yourself engaging in catastrophising thoughts, jot them down. This helps create a record of your thought patterns and makes them more tangible, allowing you to identify recurring themes or triggers.
Pay attention to physical sensations: Catastrophising thoughts often trigger physical reactions, such as increased heart rate, tense muscles, or shallow breathing. Notice any bodily sensations that arise when you find yourself caught up in catastrophic thinking. These physical cues can serve as early warning signs that you're engaging in negative thought patterns.
Identify triggers and situations: Reflect on the situations or circumstances that tend to trigger your catastrophising thoughts. Is it certain types of news, specific interactions, or particular areas of your life? Understanding your triggers can help you anticipate when catastrophising is more likely to occur.
Notice language and thought patterns: Pay attention to the language you use when thinking or talking about future outcomes. Catastrophising thoughts often involve extreme and absolutist language, such as "always," "never," or "everything will go wrong." Recognising these patterns of language can help you identify and challenge catastrophic thinking.
Remember, recognising the pattern of catastrophising is an ongoing process that requires patience and self-reflection. The more you practice awareness and observation of your thoughts, the better you'll become at catching yourself in the midst of catastrophising and shifting to more balanced thinking.
2. Challenge your thoughts
When challenging your catastrophic thoughts, it's important to critically examine the evidence and logic behind them. Here's a step-by-step approach to challenging your thoughts:
Identify the catastrophic thought: Notice the specific catastrophic thought that is causing distress. It could be something like, "I'll never be able to find a job, and I'll end up homeless."
Ask for evidence: Take a moment to reflect and ask yourself if there is any concrete evidence to support the catastrophic thought. Look for facts, data, or specific experiences that validate the thought. Often, you'll find that there isn't substantial evidence to support the extreme conclusion.
Consider alternative explanations: Explore alternative explanations or perspectives that might contradict the catastrophic thought. Are there other possibilities that are more realistic and less extreme? Consider different factors, circumstances, or potential outcomes that could challenge the catastrophic assumption.
Examine past experiences: Reflect on your past experiences and situations where you had similar fears or worries. Did the worst-case scenarios you anticipated actually come true? How did things turn out? Reminding yourself of past instances where things were not as catastrophic as you imagined can help put your current thoughts into perspective.
Assess the likelihood: Evaluate the likelihood of the catastrophic outcome occurring. Are there any objective reasons to believe that the worst-case scenario is probable? Consider the probabilities and the range of possible outcomes. It's often helpful to remind yourself that catastrophising tends to overestimate negative possibilities.
Generate counter-evidence and balanced thoughts: Once you've examined the lack of evidence and alternative explanations, actively generate counter-evidence to refute the catastrophic thought. Look for more balanced, realistic thoughts that consider both positive and negative possibilities. This can help create a more accurate and rational view of the situation.
By actively challenging your catastrophic thoughts and seeking evidence, you can gradually develop a more realistic and balanced perspective on potential outcomes, reducing anxiety and allowing for more constructive thinking.
3. Challenge the "what if" spiral
Breaking the cycle of "what if" questions is crucial for stopping catastrophising. Here are some strategies to help you break the cycle and redirect your thoughts:
Recognise the pattern: Start by becoming aware of when you're engaging in the "what if" spiral. Notice when you catch yourself asking repetitive and hypothetical questions about potential negative outcomes. Awareness is the first step in interrupting the pattern.
Challenge the usefulness: Ask yourself if repeatedly asking "what if" questions and imagining worst-case scenarios is actually helpful or productive. Often, catastrophising leads to increased anxiety and stress without providing any practical solutions. Remind yourself that dwelling on hypotheticals won't change the future.
Reframe the questions: Instead of asking "what if" questions that focus on negative possibilities, reframe your inquiries to be more solution-oriented and realistic. For example, shift from "What if everything goes wrong?" to "How can I prepare for different outcomes?" This helps shift your mindset from catastrophising to problem-solving.
Focus on the present and action: Bring your attention back to the present moment and the actions you can take right now. Catastrophising often pulls you into a future that is uncertain and beyond your control. Redirect your energy toward what you can do in the present to address potential challenges or prepare for different scenarios.
Distract yourself: When you notice the "what if" questions arising, consciously shift your focus to other activities or thoughts. Engage in activities that capture your attention, such as hobbies, physical exercise, or spending time with loved ones. By redirecting your attention, you can break the cycle of catastrophic thinking.
Remember, breaking the cycle of "what if" questions takes practice and persistence. Be patient with yourself and continue to bring your awareness back to the present moment whenever you catch yourself spiralling into catastrophic thinking. Over time, you can develop healthier thinking patterns and reduce the impact of catastrophising on your well-being.
4. Focus on the present
Shifting your attention to the present moment and practicing mindfulness can be effective in preventing catastrophising. Here are some strategies to help you cultivate mindfulness and stay grounded in the present:
Mindful breathing: Focus your attention on your breath. Take slow, deep breaths, and notice the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body. Whenever you catch your mind wandering into catastrophic thoughts, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Body scan: Take a few moments to scan your body from head to toe, paying attention to any physical sensations or areas of tension. This practice helps anchor your awareness in the present moment and brings you back to your immediate experience rather than getting lost in future worries.
Engage your senses: Engage your senses fully by intentionally focusing on what you see, hear, taste, smell, or touch in your immediate surroundings. Notice the details of your environment — the colours, textures, sounds, or flavours. This sensory awareness helps bring your attention to the present moment.
Grounding exercises: Use grounding techniques to anchor yourself in the present. For example, you can focus on the sensation of your feet touching the ground, the weight of your body on a chair, or the feeling of an object in your hand. By directing your attention to these physical sensations, you shift your focus away from catastrophic thoughts.
Mindful activities: Engage in activities with full presence and awareness. Whether it's cooking, walking, or washing dishes, bring your attention to the sensations, movements, and details of the activity at hand. Resist the urge to let your mind wander into future worries.
Label thoughts: When catastrophic thoughts arise, mentally label them as "thinking" or "worrying." This simple act of labelling can create a slight mental distance from the thoughts and help you recognise that they are not facts but rather passing mental events.
Acceptance and non-judgment: Practice accepting your thoughts and emotions without judgment. Instead of criticising or trying to suppress catastrophic thoughts, acknowledge them as natural occurrences of the mind. Allow them to come and go without getting entangled in their content.
Consistency and practice are key when it comes to mindfulness. The more you engage in these techniques, the more natural and effective they become in preventing catastrophising and keeping your attention grounded in the present moment.
5. Take control of what you can
Taking control of what you can and shifting your focus away from things beyond your control can help in stopping catastrophising. Here are some strategies to help you:
Identify what you can control: Start by identifying the aspects of the situation or problem that are within your sphere of influence. Focus on factors that you can directly impact or take action on. This could be your thoughts, behaviours, choices, or actions.
Make a plan: Once you've identified what you can control, develop a plan of action. Break down the problem or situation into smaller, manageable steps. By creating a structured plan, you can focus your energy on taking concrete actions that move you towards a desired outcome.
Prioritise problem-solving: Instead of dwelling on the worst-case scenarios, shift your attention towards problem-solving. Direct your energy towards finding practical solutions and taking pro-active steps to address the challenges you can control. This pro-active mindset helps to reduce anxiety and build a sense of empowerment.
Practice acceptance: Acknowledge and accept the aspects that are beyond your control. Recognise that there are certain circumstances, events, or outcomes that you cannot change or influence. Acceptance doesn't mean resignation but rather understanding that you have a choice in how you respond to those uncontrollable factors.
Remember, breaking the habit of catastrophising takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and practice these strategies consistently. Over time, you can develop a more empowered and resilient mindset that allows you to focus on what you can control and minimise the impact of catastrophising.
6. Practice self-care
Engage in activities that promote relaxation and well-being. Take care of your physical health through regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet. Engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and practicing self-compassion can also help reduce anxiety.
A take home message
Remember, changing how you think takes work, but you can do hard things. By recognising and challenging your catastrophic thoughts, focusing on what you can control, and practicing self-care, you can reduce the impact of catastrophising on your life.
Sally Edwards Counselling
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley
Face-to-face in person or online counselling