15 thinking styles that lead to massive anxiety 5/15: Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally can take three different forms: making a catastrophe out of something that just happened, a current situation happening in the now or imagining a catastrophe out of a future situation.

We can also catastrophize well this bad thing happened, and now this bad thing is happening so more bad things will happen! They can run into each other. The reason we do this can vary. If we hold inner beliefs such as: “that things always go wrong for us”, “that we are going to mess up”, or that “other people are a out to get us and can’t be trusted”. We can begin to project these storylines onto the situations we find ourselves in. Catching ourselves doing it we can reflect and check it out.

Catastrophizing what just happened.

This first type is making a catastrophe out of something that has just happened. For instance, if we’re a salesperson and haven’t made a sale in a while, we may believe we are a complete and utter failure and we will lose our job. It may only be a temporary situation, and there are things that can be done to change this situation.

Another example is believing that due to a small mistake we made in our relationship we will get dumped. This kind of catastrophizing takes something that just happened and gives it a truly negative “spin.” A person who has had a bad date will never find love. A chef who makes a bad desert will never be able to cook again.

A contractor who gets underbid concludes he’ll never get another job. These catastrophic thoughts often start with the words ‘what if’. What if I’ll never be XYZ because of what just happened

Catastrophizing what is happening right now

Not very removed from the above, the second type of catastrophizing is the sense of panic that something is going terribly wrong in the present moment. One joke that doesn’t find the mark on a date, or with colleagues is a complete travesty. Nothing could be worse, and we feel like we have completely blown it. This can happen when we feel like we are already a failure and our negative confirmation bias is activated in the moment.

If we catastrophize like this, a small leak in the sailboat means it will surely sink. A child coughing means they are going to die or we are a bad parent. A headache suggests that brain cancer is looming. It can be easy to label our selves or others dramatic in these moments but really it is anxiety working away under the surface

Catastrophizing the future “what if”

The third kind of catastrophizing is closely linked to others, but it is more mental and more future oriented. This kind of catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts (e.g. “It’s bound to all go wrong for me…”). Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong.

As a result, we start wondering if it will happen to us. ‘What if I break my leg skiing … What happens if they hijack my plane … What will I do if I get sick and have to go on disability … What if my son starts taking drugs?’ The list is endless. There are no limits to a really fertile catastrophic imagination.

Falling prey to catastrophizing is like striking out in our mind before we even get to the plate. Every time we have to drive somewhere new we will get lost, a new social scene will be unbearable because I won’t be funny or witty enough. This worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet is prevalent across all types of anxiety and wrecks our opportunities in life, work, relationships and more. It can affect our entire outlook in life, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, disappointment, and underachievement.

Catastrophising comeback, check the Realistic odds

The three types if left unchecked can lead us to self-pity, to an irrational, negative belief about situations, and to a feeling of hopelessness about our future prospects. Furthermore, catastrophizing can limit the options and alternatives we see available to us, and possibly paralyze us from going further with efforts toward our goals in life.

But, we can also do things to help ourselves stop catastrophizing and learning to accept a situation for what it is, both for things happening to us right now, as well as things that will happen to us in the future.

The first step to dealing with catastrophizing is to recognize when we’re doing it. The sooner we start tracking this, the quicker we’ll be able to start focusing on stopping it. It may be helpful to start recording negative thoughts for ourselves on a pad of paper, journal, on a smartphone, or in an app. Write down what happened as objectively as possible, what thoughts about the situation came, and then what our reaction or behaviours were like.

If we catch ourselves Catastrophising a solid tip is to make an honest assessment of the situation in terms of odds or percent of probability. Are the chances one in 100,000 (.001%) One in a thousand (.1%) One in twenty (5%) Looking at odds helps us realistically evaluate whatever is frightening us.

Over a week’s time, we’ll begin to see a pattern emerge of when we’re most likely to catastrophize, and some of the thoughts or situations that most likely lead to it.

Get Help:

Now that we can see some of the direct cause and effects of our thoughts, we can begin the work on changing them. Every time we now catastrophize a situation, we should answer ourselves back in our mind.

Sometimes it is the inner storylines we hold that generate our negative catastrophic thoughts. A good therapist will be able to help someone to work through these cognitive distortions and help us uncover them.

We have helped people unearth how they have been adhering to rules for living and beliefs such as: “I’m boring and shouldn’t subject people to that”, “I’m unlovable”, “people always leave me”. Each individual holds beliefs at a core level. If they are causing us have anxiety and to catastrophize then they can and maybe should be changed.

Remember that catastrophizing can be a sign of General Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Panic Attacks, PTSD, OCD and Phobias. Catastrophizing is one of 15 common types of distorted thinking. In our next blog we will be discussing Personalization.

Other Distorted Thinking styles are also extremely important for how we deal with and suffer from anxiety. Distorted thinking styles include: Filtering, Polarized Thinking, Over-generalization, Mind Reading, Catastraphizing, Personalization, Control Fallacies, The Fallacy of Fairness, Emotional Reasoning, The Fallacy of Change, Global Labeling, Blaming, Shoulds, Being Right and Heaven’s Rewards Fallacy.

If readers ever need help with anxiety, please do remember people can contact Anxiety Ireland to chat on the phone with one of our counsellors to access the best way to get anxiety help.

If unsure about anxious, take our anxiety quiz.

Take care,


Team Anxiety Ireland

1800 222 833


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