When a person experiences an uncomfortable emotion, it is usually preceded by any number of unhelpful self-statements and thoughts. Often there is a pattern to such thoughts, which are called “cognitive distortions.” Cognitive distortions are patterns of inaccurate, negative thinking that, if left unaddressed, can have a significantly negative impact on our emotions, behaviors, personal growth, and overall quality of life.
The primary reason why cognitive distortions can have such a negative impact on our quality of life is that we use them as a subconscious habit; something that happens outside of our awareness. However, when someone consistently engages in these distorted styles of thinking, they can cause themselves a great deal of emotional distress.
After reading this article, you will have a better understanding of a common cognitive distortion that is associated with issues; such as anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and depression. You will also learn:
- What is Catastrophizing?
- Types of beliefs that enable catastrophizing
- Reasons for catastrophic thinking
- Triggers for catastrophic thinking
- How to recognize areas of your life where you use catastrophic thinking
- Solutions to overcome catastrophic thinking
What Is Catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is the tendency to blow things out of proportion unnecessarily — exaggerating the importance of your errors, fears, and imperfections. Catastrophic thinking involves (1) overestimating the likelihood of an adverse event happening, and (2) overestimating the impact the event will have on us.
When you are catastrophizing, you are creating worst-case scenarios in your head out of small and often relatively insignificant situations. You might make a huge deal out of something small or make something a little bit bad seem like the worst thing ever.
Examples of Catastrophizing
You might, for instance, experience a minor setback, however, because you are in the habit of catastrophizing, you will transform the problem into a significant, awful and insurmountable obstacle that you will never overcome. Examples of catastrophic thinking include:
- “If I get a bad grade on this test, it will ruin my GPA and no reputable college will accept me and I will end up working in a job that I hate for the rest of my life.”
- “If my girlfriend/boyfriend leaves me, I will never find someone else and will be miserable and lonely for the rest of my life.”
- “If I talk to people, I will feel awkward, and they will think I am weird and not want to be around me.”
Health anxiety refers to the experience of thinking that there may be a threat to your health, which consequently triggers your anxiety response. Many people assign catastrophic significance to ailments related to health.
Perhaps you experience some discomfort in your shoulder, and immediately you think to yourself that it is going to hinder your performance in every aspect of your life or that the pain will eventually lead to having surgery with a long and rigorous recovery process. You assume the recovery will keep you out of work for months or indefinitely. You may spend an excessive amount of time searching the internet for answers and getting other people’s opinions, which only provides anecdotal evidence at best.
That is not to say that we should not have an increased sense of urgency in certain circumstances. People frequently forget that anxiety is an emotion that is designed to protect us; not harm us. The reason why some people view anxiety in a negative light is that many times, we only recognize our anxiety when its intensity is approaching our perceived threshold of discomfort, and we don’t know what to do with it.
Common Beliefs That Enable Catastrophizing
A common justification for catastrophizing is the belief that “if I consistently think of the worst-case scenario, I will be prepared for it when it inevitably happens.” The issue with this type of reasoning is that 99% of the time, the catastrophe never materializes. When the calamity does not come true, the catastrophic thinker will consider this experience an anomaly and believe that catching a break portends something even worse happening in the future. They might say, “yeah, but I just got lucky. I know that if I let my guard down, that is when it will hit me.”
The above justification is based on the belief that “the more I ruminate about something, the more control I have over it”; which is untrue. If anything, it is the opposite. The more you think about it, the more control it has over you.
Possible Reasons for Catastrophizing
Keeping in mind that cognitive distortions often happen outside of our awareness, one might unknowingly tend to catastrophize to make themselves feel important, to gain the sympathy of other people, or simply because you want to add more excitement to your life. We live in a society where people wear the amount of stress they have as a badge of honor to serve as a subconscious (or conscious) evidence to portray their importance to the world.
If you use catastrophic thinking to feel more relevant or valuable, you are increasingly more apt to seek reassurance from others; when the majority of the time, it was your choice to throw yourself into the stress-provoking situations. Those who habitually catastrophize often appear to have a mercurial temperament. This type of temperament can make it increasingly difficult for those around us; which is why this type of thinking can be detrimental to our relationships.
Catastrophic thinking can have a severe impact on a person’s potential growth since avoidance seems to be a standard escape method of this cognitive distortion. Stay tuned for future articles that will go more in depth on the various escape methods utilized to cope with distress intolerance.
Common Triggers for Catastrophic Thinking
Uncertainty of one’s intentions or interpretation can trigger catastrophic thinking. For example, your boss sends you a message to stop by their office before you go home for the day. This request could imply something negative or positive, but you cannot know which of these it is without first speaking to your boss. This ambiguity may cause you to imagine the worst possible scenario.
Relationships, career, or any other area that a person holds in high value can result in a tendency to catastrophize. When something is particularly significant to us, the thought of losing it can seem very troubling. The catastrophic nature of the potential loss can be more intense if we put all our eggs in those one or two baskets. For example, if we put all our perceived value and energy into our career, we will be much more likely to catastrophize because we will have little to zero perceived value in our lives if we lose it. Many who place all of their value into their career have a tough time when they retire. Diversifying our values is paramount when it comes to living a life of quality.
Irrational fear plays a significant role in triggering catastrophic thinking. If the person mentioned above with shoulder discomfort fears going to the doctor’s appointment, they might think about all the worst news the doctor may give them. Though it is more likely they will get a diagnosis that requires them to take a break from using their shoulder in a certain way or going to a few physical therapy sessions.
How to Overcome Catastrophic Thinking
Goal of De-Catastrophizing
The primary goal is not to decrease the intensity of the anxiety. The goal is to assign a more accurate level of significance on the anxiety-provoking situation that is in proportion with reality. Catastrophizing is influenced by other cognitive distortions; including “all or nothing” thinking.
Therefore, we must ensure that we are not allowing the pendulum to swing entirely to the other extreme. For instance, the goal for the person experiencing shoulder discomfort is not to dismiss the discomfort completely. The goal is to design a solution based on the current reality of the situation. They could take anti-inflammatories or use heat or ice for a few days to see if the pain subsides. If that did not help, they could then schedule an appointment with a medical professional who can provide a more thorough examination.
Regardless of whether we look at situations as they truly are or turn them into catastrophes, the solutions are usually the same.
Explore Your Thinking
If you are someone who excessively engages in this style of thinking, the first step is to bring the habit to your awareness. Below is a list of questions you can ask yourself to determine when you most frequently use this particular cognitive distortion. If you find yourself blowing things out of proportion, answer the following questions:
- How do I tend to catastrophize things?
- When do I tend to do this?
- How do I think at the time? Why do I think this way?
- What do I say to myself?
- How do I feel when I catastrophize?
- Why do I tend to catastrophize things? Do I gain some value from it?
The primary objective here is to get a clear understanding of how you tend to catastrophize things throughout your day. Again, awareness is the first step to change.
To overcome catastrophic thinking, it is essential that you are aware of the situations that trigger you. The goal is to restructure your thoughts so that your beliefs about each case are based on reality; rather than solely on emotions.
Some questions you can ask yourself to challenge your catastrophic thinking include:
- Does worrying about this protect me? Does it prepare me? Is this necessary?
- Thinking realistically about this, how likely is this to happen?
- What evidence is there that supports my catastrophic thoughts?
- What if things aren’t as I make them out to be?
- What evidence and facts do I have that this is unlikely to happen?
- What if this isn’t a problem? What if this is only a “phantom” problem
- How many times before have I made incorrect predictions?
- What if my thoughts about this are true?
- What would specifically have to happen to make this a reality?
- What are the actual realistic chances of this happening in exactly this way?
- If things happen this way, how will I feel about it next week? Next month? Next year?
- How could I best prepare myself to handle the worst-case scenario?
- What positives could potentially result from this experience? Could there be any opportunities here?
- How would others see things differently than I have imagined them?
In addition to the questions above, you can use the attached worksheet to help you de-catastrophize: De-catastrophizing worksheet
Other Strategies for Combating Catastrophizing
When we are feeling anxious or threatened, our breathing speeds up to get our body ready for danger. Relaxed breathing (sometimes called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing) signals the body that it is safe to relax. Relaxed breathing is slower and deeper than normal breathing that happens in the belly rather than the chest.
You can learn more about the benefits of breathing by checking out Benefits of Relaxed Breathing. For a paper script to help guide your relaxation breathing, check out Relaxed Breathing Paper Script. If an audio version would be more beneficial for you, try Relaxed Breathing Audio.
Progressive muscle relaxation
When we feel anxious or threated, the tension in our muscles increases. The anxiety can lead to a feeling of stiffness or even back and neck pain. Your fight or flight is activated. When faced with life-threatening danger, it often makes sense to run away or, if that is not possible, to fight.
The fight or flight response is an automatic survival mechanism which prepares the body to take these actions. All of the body sensations produced are happening for good reasons. They are preparing your body to run away or fight. These sensations may be experienced as uncomfortable when you do not know why they are happening. Feel free to utilize the Fight or Flight worksheet as a point of reference.
Progressive muscle relaxation teaches us to become more aware of this tension so we can better identify and address stress. For a paper script to help guide your progressive muscle relaxation, check out Progressive Muscle Relaxation Paper Script. If an audio version would be more beneficial for you, feel free to try Progressive Muscle Relaxation Audio.
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