Imagine the following scenario. You texted your partner several hours ago. They still haven’t responded. Yet, they’re posting on social media. You know they saw your text. Are they mad at you? Did you do something wrong? Are they cheating on you? Do they want to break up? You start searching for clues in their previous texts or in their social media posts. Certain words or phrases that before did not seem out of the ordinary, now seem like obvious warning signs for an impending bombshell to your relationship. Your breath becomes short, and your heart races. You keep glancing at your phone to see if they have texted. Another hour goes by. And another. Doom has set in. Your relationship is likely over.
Finally, your partner texts you back. They say that they were busy with a work event, and they text like everything is normal—because everything is normal. You realize now that their social media posts were for work, and there was never a problem to begin with. You are relieved. The relationship isn’t over. The world isn’t ending. Though you feel a little embarrassed for getting so worked up.
This thought process is a form of catastrophizing. When you catastrophize, you constantly expect the worst. It is a distorted form of thinking that transforms every problem into an irreversible catastrophe. Many of our day-to-day challenges become more than just sources of anxiety. They are total disasters. Every possible future outcome is imagined as horrible.
The example above is a common one experienced by people with anxiety in relationships, but there are many other situations in which people catastrophize. You might be struggling to write a paper for a class, and you begin to worry that you will fail the course, that you will have to drop out of school, and ultimately, that you will not be able to find a career. Or maybe your boss cut you off in a meeting, and you begin to believe that they think you are incompetent and that you will lose your job. Most of the time, these scenarios are not true. Your partner isn’t leaving you because they haven’t texted. You won’t have to drop out of school because you’re having a hard time with a paper. And your boss isn’t going to fire you because they talked over you in a meeting.
Yet, when you catastrophize, these scenarios feel true. Many of us catastrophize, whether we know it or not. Therefore, it is important to recognize when we allow our minds to catastrophize, why we are catastrophizing, and what we can do to stop it.
Why Do We Catastrophize?
Catastrophizing often makes us anxious, depressed, and unmotivated. But if catastrophizing makes us feel these ways, then why do we do it? Oftentimes, catastrophizing acts as a defense mechanism. It is an attempt to protect us from uncertainty or disappointment. We think that if we can imagine all possible bad scenarios, we might be able to prepare for—or altogether avoid—the worst outcomes.
However, seeing the worst can sometimes invite the worst. This is because the spiraling anxiety caused by catastrophizing can sometimes invite the exact problems we are hoping to avoid. When every problem becomes a fight-or-flight, survival-mode kind of crisis, it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, or keep you from trying altogether.
What You Can Do To Stop Catastrophizing
Some of us are more vulnerable to catastrophizing than others, so it is important to practice skills that help us to get out of such thought patterns. Below are a few skills you can practice to avoid expecting the worst.
Become aware of your thoughts. Sometimes catastrophizing might be our default thought process when we run into a problem. We jump from problem to disaster immediately. Try to pay attention to what you are thinking and why you might be thinking that way. What are the words you use when you catastrophize? Some common words are never, can’t, terrible, failure, rejection, and awkward. By taking the time to sit and observe your thinking, you are learning to tolerate the discomfort and anxiety produced by uncertainty.
#2 Challenge Your Thoughts
Once you become aware of your thought processes, you can begin to label your thoughts for what they are. Say to yourself, what if this thought is untrue? What if this is a catastrophizing thought? What if I am simply expecting the worst? Is there a more positive, realistic way of looking at the situation? What would I say to a friend or a family member if they were in the same situation? By challenging your thoughts, you can identify forms of distorted thinking and anxiety. Instead of viewing your thoughts as facts, challenging your worries will help develop a more balanced and less anxious perspective.
#3 Check In With Your Body
Become aware of the connection between your thoughts and what they are doing to you physically. When you catastrophize, your body often responds by producing the chemicals that go with those feelings as if what you are thinking is actually happening. This means that catastrophizing is not only about your thoughts. It is also directly linked to physical experiences of anxiety. You might experience shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness or disorientation when you catastrophize. When you experience these physical feelings, take deep breaths, take a walk, do an activity you enjoy, or practice mindfulness. Mindfulness in particular can be helpful for grounding yourself and your body in the present, rather than worrying about the future.
#4 Reframe/Recast Your Thoughts Rationally and Positively
Rather than resigning yourself to worst case scenarios, come up with at least three other ways of thinking about the situation. Try to assume rational and positive outcomes. Adopting a more optimistic and less self-deprecating approach can increase feelings of empowerment, agency, and self-worth, which, in turn, increases emotional well-being. Although you cannot possibly predict or control the future, by imagining something positive, you have a better chance at a good outcome. Even if something bad has happened, you can recast it as an opportunity for growth or to learn from it.
As you work on these skills, you might keep a journal about what you discover about your thought patterns. What kinds of situations or scenarios do you typically catastrophize about? Do you catastrophize most often about school, work, or relationships? By learning what kinds of things typically trigger catastrophizing for you, you will be better prepared to stop expecting the worst. Instead, you will learn how to start having hope for the future.