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6 ways to stop Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is one of the common cognitive distortions that people use in which they automatically assume the absolute worst-case scenario will happen. Usually, there is little reason to assume the worst will happen and the reaction is overly negative. When people use this type of cognitive distortion, they feel they are in the midst of a catastrophe or a crisis.

What is Catastrophic Thinking?

I thought maybe some examples would help you to understand what catastrophizing is.

Example 1:

Marguerite is studying to become a nurse. She’s been doing pretty well and all her grades have been acceptable. However, although she has been studying all along, she is worried about an upcoming test and thinks to herself, “I can’t believe we have this test already! I’m going to fail and then I will flunk out of school! And then I won’t have anything to do with my life and I’ll probably end up homeless!”

Example 2:

Marty noticed that his car started making a strange noise on his way to visit his mother. He starts thinking to himself,” I can not believe these things always happen to me! My car is going to break down in the dark on the side of the freeway and I’ll probably get hit and killed and then what will my mother do without me to help take care of her? She probably won’t be able to pay her bills with me gone”.

Effects of Catastrophizing

As you can imagine, thinking that you are constantly in the middle of a crisis can be very stressful and can bring on lots of anxiety. If you find that you use this type of distortion a lot, the negative thinking can quickly spiral out of control and leave you feeling depressed and with severe anxiety. Because of this, catastrophic thinking may cause you to freeze in indecision and inactivity at a time when you need to take action. However, CBT can give you the tools you need to address catastrophizing.

Tips to Cope with Catastrophic Thinking

1. The first step is to start noticing when you are engaging in this type of thinking. This sounds simple enough, but it can be challenging!

2. Name the thought what it is. Tell yourself, “I am catastrophizing! This is a cognitive distortion”. This will help to diffuse some of the emotional content of the thought and allows you to start to disbelieve the thought.

3. Reframe the thought. This is just a fancy way of saying to replace the thought with a healthier, more positive thought. Notice that I said “more” positive! It is important to not make the thought too positive and to make your new thought into something that you can 100% believe.

4. Try to logically test your thoughts. For instance, will the noise in Marty’s car lead to his death? Most likely not. It might lead to some expensive repairs, maybe, but this is something that he will be able to recover from. It may be unpleasant in the short term, but if he is responsible, it most likely will not turn into a catastrophe.

5. If you notice that you have a reoccurring negative, catastrophic thought, give it a name and separate it from yourself. For instance, Marguerite can call her thoughts about failing her test Negative Nellie (or the Clown, or Chester, or the Peanut gallery- whatever speaks to you). This will help you to have a bit of emotional distance from it and allow you to think about it in a more logical manner.

6. Envision yourself successfully dealing with the situation that you’re facing. So Marguerite can imagine herself studying, taking the test and knowing the answers, getting the test results back, and ultimately passing the exam.

Closing Thoughts

If you notice that you are engaging in catastrophic thinking, and would like to talk some more about this topic, please reach out! I would love to talk with you. Please follow the link for more info on CBT therapy.


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