4.94/5
1143 Verified Reviews on
 40% off when you buy 8 items or more. Use code 40OFFSHOP at checkout.
6 6 7 1 0 1 Units sold
catastrophizing

Catastrophizing: Definition, Causes, and How to Stop Catastrophic Thinking

Key Takeaways:

  • Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that causes people to think of worst-case scenarios all the time.
  • Catastrophizing is often associated with various mental health disorders but can happen to anyone coping with difficult situations.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for the underlying causes of catastrophizing.

Ups and downs are a normal part of life. But for people who use catastrophic thinking, anticipating unpleasant events with the worst-case scenario in mind is more the norm than it is the exception. In other words, they make things seem worse than they actually are.

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. Catastrophizing can “exaggerate the negative consequences of events or decisions” and “unnecessarily increase levels of anxiety and lead to maladaptive behavior” [*].

Unlike should statements, another cognitive distortion that we 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 emergencies, but catastrophizing accomplishes nothing other than making you very upset.

What Causes Catastrophizing?

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 [*].

Other Conditions Associated with Catastrophizing

There are other conditions associated with catastrophizing, including pain catastrophizing, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Pain Catastrophizing

Pain catastrophizing is when you magnify the perceived threat value of a source of pain. This includes feeling helpless in the presence of pain as well as being unable to prevent pain-related thoughts in anticipation of, during, and following a painful event. Essentially, pain catastrophizing is when we amplify our experience of pain.

Anxiety

Catastrophizing is also associated with anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), PTSD, and OCD.

Research that involved twins found that there was a strong genetic association between anxiety and pain catastrophizing [*]. The researchers concluded that individuals with anxiety possess a strong genetic predisposition to developing catastrophizing tendencies and vice-versa. These findings show that personality and upbringing are not the only factors for anxiety and catastrophizing.

Depression

Studies have also controlled for anxiety and found that there was also a strong relationship between catastrophizing and depression [*]. Having depression may cause a person to ruminate and keep thinking about negative emotions. This may lead them to assume the worst will always happen and result in feelings of hopelessness. Constantly feeling hopeless can lead to catastrophizing.

Fatigue

There is also a link between fatigue and catastrophizing. High catastrophizing is significantly associated with fatigue and fatigue-related fear, especially when people avoid activities that cause pain. Studies have found that the catastrophizing level of a patient could be an indicator of post-treatment fatigue [*]. These findings highlight the importance of considering both catastrophizing and fatigue when developing a treatment plan for chronic pain patients.

Examples of Catastrophizing

Are you making a habit of imagining the worst possible scenarios? Here’s what catastrophic thinking looks like on 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’d 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 afterward and think 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 tend 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, you may overstudy before an exam to avoid any possibility of getting a low grade.

How to Stop Catastrophizing

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies, such as being aware of this cognitive distortion, 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 past trauma, performing in front of others, or uncertain situations.

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.

Practice mindfulness

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.

Scheduling worry time 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.

Is There a Treatment for Catastrophizing?

While there are no treatments developed solely for catastrophizing, there are ways to alleviate symptoms of conditions related to it.

Therapy

Mental health professionals can use CBT to help a person address their catastrophic thinking. CBT encourages mindfulness, recognizing one’s actions, and correcting irrational thinking.

Medication

Medication can also be used to treat underlying disorders that can cause catastrophizing. Such medications include benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which are often used to address symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, conquering catastrophizing involves recognizing where it comes from, challenging irrational thoughts, and embracing resilience. Implementing strategies such as mindfulness and prioritizing self-care can help you break free from catastrophic thinking. You can also explore our CBT worksheets to support a child, teen, or young adult experiencing catastrophic thinking.

References:

  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Catastrophize. 2024.
  2. Kimble M, Sripad A, Fowler R, et al. Negative World Views after Trauma: Neurophysiological Evidence for Negative Expectancies. 1 September 2019.
  3. Burri A, Ogata S, Rice D, et al. Pain catastrophizing, neuroticism, fear of pain, and anxiety: Defining the genetic and environmental factors in a sample of female twins. 22 March 2018.
  4. Miller M, Meints S, Hirsh A. Catastrophizing, pain, and functional outcomes for children with chronic pain: a meta-analytic review. 1 December 2019.
  5. Lukkahatai N & Saligan L.N. Association of catastrophizing and fatigue: A systematic review. February 2013.
  6. Sawchuk T & Mayer E. Fear-Avoidance Model. 2016.
  7. Gutierrez L, Velasco L, Catala P, et al. Perfectionism, maladaptive beliefs and anxiety in women with fibromyalgia. An explanatory model from the conflict of goals. January 2022.
  8. Keng S, Smoski M, Robins C. Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. 13 May 2011.
  9. Cicetti F. Can Negative Thoughts Be Stopped? 30 May 2013.
  10. National Institute of Mental Health. Caring for Your Mental Health. December 2022.