What Is Catastrophizing? 16 Ways To Stop It

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Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion and negative thinking pattern in which a person tends to magnify or exaggerate the potential consequences of a situation, problem, or event.

When someone is catastrophizing, they imagine the worst possible outcome to an extreme. They dwell on the idea that things will inevitably go badly wrong, regardless of how unlikely that may be.

Catastrophizing is a mental health concern that can cause severe problems.

This type of thinking can lead to increased anxiety, stress, and even panic attacks. People who catastrophize tend to jump to conclusions, ignore evidence that contradicts their catastrophic thoughts, and experience heightened emotional distress as a result. This negativity can easily lead to apprehension and dread about the future.

And that is why you need to learn how to stop catastrophizing and reduce your anxiety to a more manageable level.

Catastrophizing as a cognitive distortion.

Different patterns of thinking cause you to interpret the world in different ways. People who think positively tend to be more optimistic and interpret situations in a positive light.

Cognitive distortions, on the other hand, are more negative and pessimistic which causes the person to interpret the world more negatively.

Some examples of cognitive distortions that relate to catastrophizing include:

Mind Reading: The person may assume what someone else feels or thinks without any evidence. For example, they may think that their friend doesn’t like them because the friend didn’t return a text. In reality, the friend might have been busy or thought they replied but didn’t.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: The person thinks in terms of black-and-white with no middle ground. For example, they may think they’re completely unlovable because someone turned them down for a date. In reality, offers for dates get turned down all the time. It just means that the person being asked isn’t vibing with the asker.

Personalization: They take responsibility for things that are outside of their control. For example, a project at work goes poorly and they blame themselves for its failure. In reality, many people and circumstances contribute to the success or failure of a project. It may have failed because someone else didn’t submit a piece of paperwork on time.

Cognitive distortions like catastrophizing can be harmful. They fuel negative feelings which will affect your happiness, make you feel overwhelmed, and cause hopelessness.

What causes catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing may be a symptom of illness or a learned behavior. The best way to differentiate between the two is to speak to a mental health professional to find the root of your negative thinking.

Some causes may include:

Anxiety and stress: A person may catastrophize from chronic stress and anxiety. These mental health concerns distort your perception and interpretation of situations.

Past experiences: Trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and negative experiences may cause hypersensitivity toward threats. This hypersensitivity creates a sense of vulnerability and that vulnerability may cause catastrophizing as a defense mechanism to avoid future negative outcomes.

Cognitive biases: A cognitive bias is the natural way one perceives and interprets information. A cognitive bias may cause someone to ignore neutral or positive aspects of a situation in addition to magnifying the negative.

Low self-esteem: Individuals with low self-esteem typically lack the confidence to handle future situations. They may believe they will experience negative outcomes because they are not good enough to cope with challenges.

Learned behavior: People who grew up around others who catastrophized may adopt it as learned behavior. They see other people doing it, so they learn the unhealthy behavior.

Lack of coping skills: A person with poor coping skills is more easily overwhelmed by stressors and uncertainty. A lack of skills may cause them to default to a worst-case scenario because they can’t handle the stress, anxiety, or depression.

Perfectionism: Perfectionists often fear failure. That fear of failure may cause the perfectionist to catastrophize because they often think in black and white; either success or failure. They tend to think that any setback or plan that doesn’t work out perfectly means that the whole effort was wasted. They may then personalize the failure.

Health conditions: Mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression may increase the likelihood of catastrophizing. According to research and studies, catastrophizing can also be caused by physical illnesses like cancer and fibromyalgia. Pain catastrophizing may cause fears that the pain will never recede or get worse.

Environmental factors: Major life changes, financial difficulties, and challenging situations may all cause severe catastrophizing.

Signs Of Catastrophizing

Effective management of catastrophizing can only begin if you are able to identify when you’re doing it.

There are different signs and indicators that may help you more clearly identify it. Symptoms isn’t necessarily the right word because catastrophizing itself is not an illness; it’s a symptom itself. Still, if you think you may be catastrophizing, look for these signs.

1. Overthinking.

Overthinking refers to the mental process of dwelling on a thought, problem, or idea to such an extreme that it becomes difficult to reach a conclusion or find a solution. Often, the person will excessively analyze past events, worry about the future, or worry about the potential outcomes of a situation. Overthinking is often a cycle. Once a person starts overthinking, they get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts.

2. Racing Thoughts.

Racing thoughts are similar to overthinking but tend to be more intense and rapid. The thoughts are often an onslaught of repeated, uncontrollable thoughts without any real pattern or logic to them. They often cause the person to feel overwhelmed or shut down as they try to keep up with their thoughts.

3. Stress.

Stress is a natural response to demanding, challenging situations. It can provide motivation to take action and deal with tough situations instead of avoiding them. However, excessive or chronic stress is unhealthy. The various processes that stress causes in a person, such as cortisol production, are not healthy in the long term. Catastrophizing tends to make stress worse and make it more difficult to cope.

4. Anxious feelings and fear.

Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion associated with anxiety. Due to the extreme nature of the thoughts associated with catastrophizing, it easily leads to amplified anxiety and fear. That amplified anxiety may cause exaggerated threat perception, avoidance, or excessive worrying. Exaggerated threat perception is finding threats in benign situations or creating threats out of thin air. You may even feel anxious when things are going well. Anxious feelings and fear may also impair one’s decision-making abilities.

5. Anger.

Catastrophizing and anger may be connected when catastrophic thoughts trigger feelings of anger. Anger is often an extreme emotional response to injustices, frustrations, or threats. A person who is catastrophizing may be feeling frustrated, interpreting benign situations as threats, or severely self-critical. Self-critical catastrophizing typically leads to shame and anger.

6. Depression and pessimism.

Depressive thought patterns are closely linked with cognitive distortions like catastrophizing. Being that cognitive distortions are inherently negative, those thoughts often cause the person to make their own depression worse by dwelling on them. Pessimism is similar—the negative thought patterns are dominant and it’s difficult to find happiness, hope, or optimism when your brain is latched onto the worst that can happen.

7. To be stuck in your head.

To be stuck in one’s head is to be so preoccupied with your thoughts that you aren’t engaged with the world around you. People often confuse it with dissociating because it looks similar. The difference, however, is that being stuck in your own head is a flood of thoughts and feelings rather than zoning out. Catastrophizing is responsible for an overload of negative thoughts and creating scenarios in your head that can be so overwhelming that one can get swept up in them.

8. Internet searching.

There are particular patterns and behaviors that link catastrophizing and internet searches. In many cases, the person will look up information related to their distorted thoughts to confirm to themselves that their thoughts are true.

The problem is that the internet is an echo chamber in many ways. Algorithms and communities tend to group like-minded people together. So, if you’re searching for information on how terrible the world is, that’s what it’s going to give you.

You may never see unbiased views or counterarguments unless you go looking for them directly. This may be a sign if you find yourself “researching” terrible things that you are afraid of or that you think will go wrong regularly.

What are some examples of catastrophizing?

To better understand catastrophizing, it helps to look at some examples. Remember, catastrophizing magnifies the negative consequences of a situation to an extreme, regardless of how weak the evidence is to support the belief. The cognitive distortion will take you straight to the worst-case scenario.

Example: Your friends cancel plans to hang out with you.

Thought: “I’m a terrible friend. Everyone must hate me to not want to hang out with me.”

Example: You make a mistake at work.

Thought: “My boss is going to think I’m incompetent. I bet they’ll fire me.”

Example: You receive a rejection email from a job you interviewed for.

Thought: “I’m never going to find a job. This is hopeless.”

Example: You have a persistent headache.

Thought: “I have a brain tumor. I just know it.”

Example: You face an unexpected expense.

Thought: “I can’t afford this. I’m going to wind up homeless.”

How To Stop Catastrophizing

As a symptom, catastrophizing can be reduced by treating the underlying cause. That is, if your catastrophizing is caused by anxiety, you may reduce the effect of catastrophizing by treating the anxiety.

There are also strategies to better manage catastrophizing that may help. Self-management can help reduce nervousness and uneasiness caused by the cognitive distortion.

Formal Treatment

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT helps you address your thinking and behavioral patterns. A therapist can help you learn to recognize irrational thoughts and emotions so that you can defuse them. Tempering irrational thoughts and emotions with rational ones gives you greater control over them, interrupting the cycle of catastrophizing.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

DBT is similar to CBT but focuses more on distress tolerance and emotional regulation. The idea behind DBT is to identify and process the emotions that would otherwise lead to catastrophizing. By catching them early, you may be able to defuse the emotions before they can take off.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

Mindfulness may help stop catastrophizing. By channeling your thoughts and emotions into meditation, you may be able to improve your emotional self-regulation to effectively prevent the escalation.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

The act of accepting all emotions is a powerful way to deprive them of their power. Instead of thinking that something is wrong with you and dwelling on those thoughts, ACT provides tools to detach from the emotions and observe them.

For example, instead of dwelling on the thoughts and emotions that you are a bad person, you would instead reframe it as, “Yes, I feel as though I am a bad person, but these feelings are temporary.” Reframing thoughts and emotions helps prevent escalation.

Exposure response prevention therapy (ERP)

ERP aims to help you build your tolerance to distressing emotions through gradual, controlled exposure. Improving your tolerance to distressing emotions makes them less impactful, which helps reduce the intensity of emotions that fuel catastrophizing.

Psychodynamic therapy

The benefit of psychodynamic therapy is indirect. Instead of directly approaching catastrophizing, psychodynamic therapy is aimed at addressing mental illness and trauma that may fuel it. Treating mental illness and trauma will typically reduce the intensity of symptoms. Note, this is not a method of immediate management. It can take years of effort to create some healing and peace of mind.


There are no drugs that will specifically address or manage catastrophizing. Instead, medication to help with the cause of the catastrophizing may be beneficial. For example, treating generalized anxiety or chronic pain should lessen symptoms like catastrophizing. Medication often plays an important role in mental health management.

Self-Managing Catastrophizing

You may be able to find some success in self-managing your catastrophic thinking. The following process is a common process that may better help you prevent the escalation.

However, self-management doesn’t typically fix the problem; it only helps you get through the problem for now. For long-term solutions, you will want to speak with a medical or mental health professional to get to the root of the issue and treat it.

In the meantime, here is a process for self-management.

Identify the thought pattern.

The first step is to become aware of when you are having the thoughts that lead to catastrophizing. Pay attention to your thought processes when you get agitated and your mind starts spiraling into worst-case scenarios.

Challenge your thoughts and emotions.

Challenge the validity of those thoughts and feelings as you have them. Ask yourself if there is any evidence to support these irrational beliefs. Catastrophizing often involves irrational and exaggerated thinking.

Practice mindfulness and meditate.

Mindfulness techniques help you stay present and grounded. Yoga, deep breathing, and meditation can help you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions. By becoming aware of them, you can better prevent them from escalating into worst-case scenarios.

Reframe negative thoughts and emotions.

Once you’ve identified the thoughts and emotions related to worst-case scenarios, shift your thoughts to more realistic ones. Consider positive or neutral outcomes instead of the negative.

Keep a journal.

Write down your catastrophic thoughts and feelings along with more realistic thoughts. Journaling is a great way to gain insight into how you think and your overall progress. By looking back at previous writings and comparing them with the present, you can find repeating patterns that may help you better identify and manage unhealthy thoughts.

Limit exposure to negative content and media.

Negative content and media fuels negativity and catastrophizing. Limit the negativity you expose yourself to and spend less time on social media.

Seek social support from friends, family, or a support group.

You may want to share your concerns with friends, family, or a support group to help ground yourself in the present. They may be able to help you by talking through your concerns and introducing more realistic or positive thoughts about your concern.

Set a dedicated time to process negative thoughts and emotions.

Avoiding negativity altogether is not healthy or possible. Avoidance just compounds problems. One approach you may take is to schedule a specific block of time to think about it, something like 20 minutes. Once the time has finished, you consciously redirect your thoughts toward more positive and constructive activities.

Distract yourself.

One method of self-management is to distract yourself from the negative thoughts. Focus on something that will be mentally engaging so that your mind isn’t wandering back to the negative. Study, exercise, hobbies, or spending time with your loved ones can all help.

Seek professional help.

Consider reaching out to a doctor or mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment. You likely need professional help and medical advice if you find that your catastrophizing is interfering with your ability to conduct your daily life. Therapy and medications may be the best next step for a healthier you.

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspectives from the side of the mental health consumer. Jack has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.