Ups and downs are a normal part of life. But for people who use catastrophic thinking, they anticipate unpleasant events, and when these events happen, they imagine the worst-case scenario. In other words, these individuals make something seem more serious than it really is.
Here’s how to stop catastrophizing so you can break that cycle of negativity and protect yourself from added stress, anxiety, and depression.
What is Catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing, also called “magnifying,” is a type of cognitive distortion in which you always fear the worst. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as “to exaggerate the negative consequences of events or decisions,” adding that catastrophizing “can unnecessarily increase levels of anxiety and lead to maladaptive behavior”[*].
Unlike should statements, another cognitive distortion that I discussed previously, catastrophizing doesn’t do a person any good at all. For instance, should statements can sometimes push you to get something done, which is particularly helpful in emergency situations — but catastrophizing accomplishes nothing other than making you very upset.
What Causes a Person to Catastrophize?
Different things may contribute to catastrophizing. In fact, catastrophizing and other errors in thinking are common in those suffering from a mental health disorder.
However, anyone can catastrophize as a coping mechanism when faced with difficulties. This probably explains why we can feel anxious the night before an interview or an important meeting, or moments after we get called to the principal’s office.
Past negative events or psychological trauma can also cause a person to develop a negative expectancy bias where they interpret vague or uncertain situations negatively or assume the worst from a neutral situation[*].
Examples of Catastrophizing
Are you making a habit of imagining the worst possible scenarios? Here’s what catastrophic thinking looks like in a typical day:
- Your best friend didn’t respond to your text message, so you assumed that you might have said something offensive, and as a consequence, she’ll end your friendship.
- Forgetting to bring your project to school, so you believe that you’ll get embarrassed in class and everyone will gossip about you.
- Eating a sugary treat at a party, which made you feel guilty afterwards and thinking that you’ll get cancer and die.
- You’ve failed an exam, so you think you’re dumb and will never be successful in life.
- Someone in your family got sick with COVID. Now, you think that everyone who’s sick likely has COVID.
People who experience catastrophic thinking have a tendency to dwell on negative ideas, and sometimes, their fear becomes overwhelming to the point where they engage in maladaptive behaviors — for example, avoiding going to parties or avoiding close relationships[*].
It’s possible for someone who often catastrophizes to develop maladaptive perfectionism. This is when you strongly feel a need to control events as a result of being preoccupied with the idea of failure[*]. For example, overstudying before an exam to avoid any possibility of getting a low grade.
Is Catastrophizing a Mental Illness?
No. Catastrophizing isn’t a mental health disorder. However, it is a symptom of mental health illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Notice that one characteristic common to these mental illnesses is overthinking.
Associated Mental Conditions
Catastrophic thinking is linked to variety of mental conditions, including:
- Anxiety (panic disorder, phobias, separation anxiety, etc.)
- Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Intermittent-explosive disorder (IED)
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
If catastrophizing frequently happens in someone you love who has one of these conditions, it’s best to seek help from a mental health expert.
4 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing
Cognitive-behavioral therapy strategies, such as being aware of this negative thinking pattern, mindfulness, and self-care and stress management techniques, can break the habit of catastrophizing. Here are tips that will help:
Know when you’re magnifying things.
Catastrophizing usually happens when you’re faced with certain stressors, such as being around certain people, a place that reminded you of a past trauma, performing in front of others, or situations that are uncertain.
In these moments, shift your attention to your thoughts. Are you thinking about the worst possible scenarios? Being more self-aware can serve as a foundation for coping healthily.
This anxiety triggers worksheet is a self-awareness exercise for kids to identify their personal triggers and explore skills to manage them.
The next time you’re having an anxiety spiral, do some mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness brings you back to the present moment, which makes it an effective antidote against worrying too much about a future outcome. Research shows that mindfulness improves a person’s ability to let go of negative automatic thoughts[*].
Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, journaling, and going out for a walk in nature are effective ways to calm yourself down.
Schedule worry time.
This involves setting aside a specific time each day to acknowledge and work those worrisome thoughts. Scheduling worry time may seem counterproductive, but it’s actually beneficial for people who find themselves constantly engaging in catastrophic thinking.
It will help you worry less and allow you to function better throughout the day. Here’s a tip: Choose the same time in a day to “worry” and make sure it isn’t close to your bedtime. It could be right after school or office hours (before snack time or dinner time).
During your worry time, write down all your worrisome thoughts on a sheet of paper. You may also use this printable worry jar worksheet for kids. After 15 minutes, put it away and don’t think about those negative thoughts for the rest of the day!
Make self-care a priority.
Exhaustion, stress, sleep deprivation, and poor health can contribute to negative thinking. This is why it’s important to have a regular self-care routine that includes exercise, eating healthily, relaxation, and making time for activities that bring you joy[*][*].
Need self-care ideas? Feel free to print this 101 self-care activities poster for kids and teens. You can frame and hang it on a wall as a daily reminder. Remember that self-care can go a long way not just for maintaining physical health but also keeping negativity at bay.
When to Seek Professional Help
If catastrophizing is causing too much stress and it’s affecting your daily function, performance in school, at work, and your relationships — it means you need help.
Seeing a mental health professional can be an opportunity to rule out a mental health condition you may not be aware of that’s contributing to your negative thoughts.
The Bottom Line
As you’ve learned in this article, catastrophizing isn’t a mental illness but is related to mental health disorders. But, while someone with a condition like anxiety, for example, can catastrophize, mentally healthy people may experience it from time to time.
Managing this distorted thought pattern starts by recognizing it in everyday situations and using positive coping strategies. You can also explore more of our therapeutic resources to support a child, teen, or young adult experiencing catastrophic thinking.
If following the tips above doesn’t work, reach out to a licensed therapist in your area.
- American Psychological Association. catastrophize
- Kimble M, Sripad A, Fowler R et al. Negative World Views after Trauma: Neurophysiological Evidence for Negative Expectancies. 2019 September 01
- ScienceDirect. Fear-Avoidance Model
- Gutierreza L, Velasco L, Blanco S et al. Perfectionism, maladaptive beliefs and anxiety in women with fibromyalgia. An explanatory model from the conflict of goals. 2021 August 05
- Keng S, Smoski M, Robins C. Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. 2011 May 13
- Cicetti F. Can Negative Thoughts Be Stopped? 2013 May 30
- National Institute of Mental Health. Caring for Your Mental Health