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What is Catastrophizing?

April 23rd, 2020

Have you ever felt like something bad that’s happened to you is actually maybe a lot worse than it really is? Or that because of that one bad thing, more even worse things are looming? Yes? Me too. No? Lucky you.

This sort of thinking has been with me for a majority of my adult life and I always thought it was just my anxious, overthinking mind at work, analysing my current situation, in addition to all possible outcomes for the future based on current events. But it turns out there's an actual word for it. This, my friends, is what is referred to as catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is actually a form of cognitive distortion in which you believe that something is much worse than it actually is. Essentially, when you catastrophize, you irrationally jump to the worst possible conclusion when faced with an unfavourable experience or event. Catastrophizing generally takes one of two forms: (1) formulating a catastrophe out of a current situation or (2) imagining an impending catastrophe from a future situation.

Some examples of catastrophizing are:

  • My partner didn’t respond to my text, they’re not interested in me anymore, I’m never going to find someone else.
  • If I fail this exam, I’ll have to drop out of school, I’ll never be successful.
  • I found a lump on my body, it’s probably cancerous, I think I’m going to die.

I could say that some of these examples are a bit farfetched and unlikely, and for some, they might be, but the truth is these are all thoughts I’ve had at one point in my life or another. To update you: my partner was still interested in me, despite not having texted me back in two hours; I didn’t fail the exam and am now a graduate; the lump was not even a lump.

In my case, my catastrophizing arose from anxiety, but that’s not the case for everyone. Catastrophizing can find itself in those with depression, those with pain or illness, those experiencing stress, and others as well. Some might experience catastrophizing due to lack of sleep or even lack of self-care, others may experience it based on their diets, e.g. overconsumption of caffeine. Ultimately, when we catastrophize, we tend to overreact; we immediately and irrationally jump to conclusions, with the assumption that it will be catastrophic. So how do we fix it?

  • Acknowledge that these things happen. Life is filled with highs and lows, good and bad, and we have to accept and recognize that this is a part of life. Just because you have a bad day, doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad life.
  • Recognise your irrational or exaggerated thoughts. When you catastrophize, you’re often thinking irrationally. By identifying when this is happening, it becomes easier to put a stop to it. Adjust your thinking to focus on reality and rationality.
  • Offer yourself positive encouragement. Think positively, she said. It’s easier said than done, I know. When you catastrophize, though, your thoughts are negatively rooted. If you can redirect your energy towards positive thinking and affirmations, it’s more likely that you can overcome the fear of catastrophe.

To stop catastrophizing takes time, of course. Practice mindfulness. Take a step back and distance yourself from your troubles, to get a new perspective. You have to make the conscious effort to ground yourself in rationality and reality. When you can do that, it becomes easier to ignore those annoying thoughts of catastrophe.



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Lauren Tortolero, MSc 

Psychotherapy Intern

[email protected]




References

Bonior, A. (2016, November 16). 5 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201611/5-ways-stop-catastrophizing

Catastrophizing. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/catastrophizing

Grohol, J. M. (2018, October 8). What is Catastrophizing? Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-catastrophizing/

Nall, R. (2017, February 7). How to stop catastrophizing. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320844

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