What is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is also known as cognitive distortion, a persistent, reflexive way of thinking that is unrealistic.  It’s always arriving at the worst case scenario with each little hiccup or foreseeable problem.

This kind of false cognition can manifest in both present state and future ideation.  So not only do current problems feel insurmountable but future events are anticipated with dread and feared as well.  And because catastrophic thinkers become so concerned and anxious about everything that may possibly go wrong, they actually ideate those future complications into fruition.  So by always assuming the worst, smaller potential problems will feel much more magnified and may, in reality, actually become exacerbated. Therefore, you could actually think a bad outcoming into happening.

When something negative actually does happen, it can feel very threatening and potentially dangerous to a deeply-rooted catastrophic thinker, depending on their mental health history or history of trauma and reactive cognitive behaviors.  Being a catastrophic thinker isn’t simply being a downer or a complainer where the problem can be fixed by looking on the bright side.   It’s a cognitive issue of finding oneself trapped in a perpetually heightened level of vigilance where there is never a place or time for peace, happiness, or balance.

Where Does Catastrophic Thinking Stem From?

  • Trauma and Background

Trauma

Catastrophic thinking can be linked to past trauma or a difficult upbringing, making one feel as though they need to always be alert and guarded because, subconsciously, their environment is perceived as threatening and dangerous.  This type of cognition can be part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other related disorders.  Trauma can create anxiety which causes hyperawareness and vigilance, but continuous attentiveness and circumspection keep the cycle of distorted thinking going by spiking stress hormones like cortisol.  It becomes a chicken or egg-type scenario because the situation is so intertwined.

  • Background

Nurture and nature can play a large role in influencing a person’s predilection towards catastrophic thinking.  Upbringing, for instance, can have a significant impact because catastrophic thinking can be a learned habit.  If a parent was always expecting the worst out of every situation and particularly expressive about their negative thinking,  you may have learned to mirror that behavior.  Moreover, if the parent was especially selective concerning outward praise or positivity, it may make a more profound overall impact, causing the child to determine this is the natural way to interpret the world.

Nature is also a notable variable in terms of the predisposition for anxiety, personality, and other mental disorders.  With anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person may ruminate excessively over an upcoming event, having arrived at a negative conclusion prematurely.  Borderline and histrionic personality disorders are also linked to catastrophizing.

It may seem obvious to others that life would be much better for those who thought so negatively if they simply stopped, but it isn’t that simple.  Besides being set in a pathological, automated pattern, many catastrophic thinkers think that they prepare their minds for the worst to happen, then they will be emotionally ready to receive bad news.  The problem with that is that is catastrophic thinkers are always bearing down to be hurt, disappointed, or worse, instead of living a full, happy life.

Catastrophic thinking can also stop people from reaching goals or even destroy careers and relationships.  It can create depressive mood cycles and foster insomnia and other health problems.

How To Stop Catastrophizing?

If you are like me, who, admittedly, thinks this way, here are some ideas to work at battling the catastrophic thinking to help balance the way you view each experience and have some peace in your daily life:

  • Challenge Your Thoughts
    • Thought vs. Reality

Start a habit of keeping track of your thoughts each day (the ones that really worry you).  If you forget to do this, you can set a reminder for your self every hour on your phone or even with a simple kitchen timer.  After a while, catching yourself thinking will become habit and you will naturally remember to write down the thoughts.  Once you record the thought, ask yourself specific questions about the thought:

  1. Is the thought a fact?
  2. What proof do I have that it is true?
  3. In the past has something similar happened to support that this sort of situation actually was not an issue at all?
  4. What am I feeling at this moment?
  • Get Some Rest
    • Cliches are cliches for a reason. “Sleep on it” had to come from somewhere.  Getting a good night’s rest isn’t a miracle cure, but it can improve your outlook help you assess your situation more clearly.
  • Journal
    • My worst habit is venting to others first before writing about my worries. I have a lot in my head and I usually overload my family with my rants and raves which, honestly, proves not only selfish but fruitless.  This is because overtalking while I am inconsolable creates more stress, worry, and paranoia for me, and taxes my loved ones emotionally.
  • Get Moving
    • Keep busy, work out, distract yourself.
  • Consider Therapy
    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an option to consider because it focuses in particular on how to recognize and redirect negative thoughts. If you are considering this route, speak to your health care provider.

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