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Catastrophizing: The Worst Thing Ever

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 09, 2021

It's surprisingly easy to catastrophize. Circumstances pile up until it feels like the end of the world.‌

It's more than just a thought. Catastrophizing — or amplifying the severity of adverse situations — leads to heightened anxiety and destructive behaviors. So what can you do to stop catastrophizing?

Examples of Catastrophizing

Have you had a morning go wrong? You oversleep, spill coffee, forget your phone, hit some red lights, and miss an appointment. At that moment, you might think, "This is the worst day ever."‌

Other times, your brain does most of the work instead of your environment. As a result, a single event can cause a spiral that ends in catastrophe.‌

While driving to work, your car makes a strange clunking sound, and the "check engine" light turns on. You might mentally catastrophize the situation, resulting in self-talk that might sound like this:

  • "Something's wrong with the car."
  • "If the car breaks down, fixing it is going to cost a fortune." 
  • "I won't be able to get to work."
  • "I'll lose my job." 

A series of events doesn't typically lead to catastrophizing. But to your brain, that might as well be the case. 

10 Ways to Avoid Catastrophizing

There isn't a fix for catastrophizing. It takes work, intention, and awareness. 

1. Maintain your relationships. In good and bad times, keep up with the significant people in your life. A connection to them will tether you to what's true.

When life is stressful, it's natural to self-isolate. Instead, you should find empathetic people who can validate and support the anxiety you're experiencing. ‌

2. Find a community. Whether religious, hobby, or civic groups, a community provides a web of social support. These connections keep you down to earth.‌

3. Keep your body healthy. Stress takes a toll on your physical health and vice versa. Hydration, nutrition, sleep, and exercise change how your body handles anxiety and stress. ‌

4. Practice regular mindfulness.Mindfulness allows you to reflect on your emotions, build emotional muscles, and keep your mind in the present moment. It gives you the means to grapple with your anxiety. ‌

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Journaling
  • Prayer

Finding a mindfulness practice that works for you will require trial-and-error.

5. Find positive outlets. To prevent catastrophizing, you need to teach your body to manage stress and anxiety. Negative outlets like drugs and alcohol may help in the short term, but the effects are temporary.

The only way to stop catastrophizing is to build understanding and tolerance toward stress and anxiety. Without those resources, it's easy to catastrophize.‌

6. Strive to be better. One way to avoid catastrophizing the present is to strive for what's next in your life. Set goals, look for chances to grow, and never stop trying to improve yourself.

7. Focus on others. Catastrophizing comes from hyper focus on your life. Finding ways to help others is a great way to get out of your head.

Moreover, helping others gives you purpose, enables you to connect with people, and fosters substantial world growth. Supporting others will put your circumstances into perspective.‌

8. Maintain perspective. Mindfulness will help you catch yourself catastrophizing. When you find yourself catastrophizing, point it out to yourself. ‌

Once you've identified your catastrophizing, remind yourself of your reality. What you catastrophize isn't the reality of your present or future. ‌

9. Identify what you can change. It's essential to understand that there are circumstances you can't control. Accepting those will allow you to focus on what you can control.‌

10. Learn from experience. Look back at times of similar stress and remember how you responded. You may learn something new that'll guide you during current periods of stress.

Anti-Catastrophizing Practices

Keep a thought log. To catch yourself catastrophizing, write your thoughts down. Writing the chain of thoughts down will make you aware of your patterns and make catastrophizing easier to see in the future.‌

Keep an inventory. When you're catastrophizing, start a two-column list. One column will be what's wrong with the circumstance and the other will be what's right, highlighting positive aspects of the situation.‌

Repeating this practice will make it easier to prevent catastrophizing in the future. Then, if you do catastrophize, you'll be able to keep a positive mindset.‌

Consult the evidence. It's time to grab your detective notebook and magnifying glass. This practice requires a logical brain, so you might need a friend's help while you're catastrophizing. ‌

Think logically about what you're catastrophizing. Can those events really happen? Is there any evidence that says so? How much evidence proves that those events are unlikely to happen? ‌

Taking stock and consulting the evidence can help you prove to yourself that your catastrophizing is illogical. While this may not relieve the stress you're feeling, it can open the door for decatastrophizing.‌

Think about best- and worst-case scenarios. Say you have a day that feels like the worst day ever. What does an actual worst-case scenario look like? Write it down.

Now, consider the best-case scenario. What will the circumstances look like if everything works out? Write it down.

Finally, meet in the middle. The circumstances that fall between the best and worst cases are more likely to happen. Once you acknowledge the middle ground, you can start taking actions to prepare.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: "APA Dictionary of Psychology: catastrophize," "Building your resilience."

Harvard Business Review: "What to Do When Your Mind (Always) Dwells on the Worst-Case Scenario."

The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center: "Three Strategies to Combat Catastrophizing and Reduce Anxiety."

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