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  • Writer's pictureDena Lampert

Catastrophizing: What It Is and How To Stop

Hands up if you’ve ever had a thought like this?

“If I don’t pass this exam then I’m definitely going to fail the others, which means that I’m going to fail this academic year. And that means I’m going to completely fail at life and never get the job I want or be successful.

We’ve all had thoughts like this before, where we convince ourselves that the worst possible outcome is inevitable. These types of thoughts can occur about anything; an exam, a social interaction, an interview, or even just going to the grocery store during COVID times. This way of thinking is called catastrophizing, and it’s one of the most common cognitive distortions.

In our last blog, we explained that cognitive distortions are types of thoughts that cause people to perceive reality inaccurately, generally in a negative way. They are essentially your mind playing tricks on you; making you believe things that are not actually true.

Today we are going to focus on one of the most common types of cognitive distortions, catastrophizing, and how you can identify and stop yourself from falling into the spiral of catastrophic thinking.

What is catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that can be defined by assuming that the worst will happen, and that it’s inevitable. This often means that you might believe that you are in a worse position than you are and the extent to which you think things will go wrong, is not in line with reality.

Albert Ellis first coined the term, describing catastrophizing as experiencing “an irrationally negative forecast of future events.”

Oftentimes, people might think that someone who is catastrophizing is just over-exaggerating or overreacting, but a lot of the time, someone who is catastrophizing won’t realize that they are doing so.

How to recognize if you are catastrophizing

The first step towards reducing your catastrophic thinking is to become aware that you are doing it in the first place. This is probably the most difficult part, as becoming fully aware of your own thoughts is no easy task. One way to do this is to reflect on all your thoughts and try to hear them as an outsider. Imagine saying all your thoughts out loud, and then think about what your mom or your friend or your brother might think hearing those thoughts.

Another helpful way is to write your thoughts down. If you have a sense that your thoughts might be getting out of control and that you might be catastrophizing, write them down. Once you have written these thoughts down, you will be able to look at the thoughts objectively and will be more likely to be able to identify whether they are catastrophic thoughts or not.

What to do if you notice you are catastrophizing

Once you’ve noticed that you are catastrophizing, the best thing to do is to label the thought. Whether you wrote it down or you’ve noticed the thought in your head, label it as a catastrophic thought and as a cognitive distortion. This act of labeling the thought is powerful in itself. It’s the first step toward understanding whether your thinking reflects reality or not.

Once you have labeled the thought as catastrophic, the next step is to just throw it away. Forget the thought entirely, don’t dwell on it, and go on about your day. If you’ve written the thought down on a piece of paper, you can physically throw it in the bin to demonstrate that you’re not going to waste any more time thinking about it.

Now, this might sound like it’s easier said than done—and it is—but once you learn the practice of becoming aware of your thoughts, labeling them, and then letting them go, it will become a lot easier.

How Cognitive Restructuring can help

This practice of labeling your thoughts and letting them go will work for a lot of people, but for others, it won’t be enough. You might be so used to catastrophizing that acknowledging these thoughts might not come so easily, and you may need some professional support.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways of treating cognitive distortions. Working with a CBT therapist can help you to identify which of your thoughts are distorted and which are truthful. Through a CBT technique called Cognitive Restructuring, you will be taught how to deconstruct unhelpful thoughts and rebuild them in a more balanced and accurate way.

Essentially, if you can change the way you think about situations, you will be able to change the feelings you have and the actions you take. And this ultimately leads to a reduction in intense anxiety, anger, and sadness. Taking on a more optimistic and less negative perspective increases self-confidence, empowerment, and overall well-being.

If you recognize that you might be experiencing catastrophic thinking and would like some support in managing these thoughts, we recommend reaching out to a qualified CBT therapist. By working with a CBT therapist, you will be supported through the process of decatastrophizing your thoughts and restructuring them into more rational, logical, and positive ways of thinking.


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