Hi, everyone. I’m Emma McAdam. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. And in this post we’re going to talk about catastrophizing, which is expecting the worst, and then I’m going to teach you three things you can do to stop catastrophizing.
Late one night a man was driving along a dark rural road. He was out far from any towns, and he was just trying to get home. All of a sudden he hears a loud bang and the thump thump thump of a flat tire. He’s irritated, but no need to panic; he knows how to change a tire.
So he gets out of the car, he gets into the trunk, he pulls out the spare tire and the lug wrench. And then he realizes with a sinking feeling that his jack is missing. You can’t change a tire without a jack. Then he checks his phone and he doesn’t have reception. So now he’s stuck.
As he’s wondering what to do, he looks down the road and he sees a porch light a long ways away. It looks like a little farmhouse. And he decides to walk over and ask the farmer if he could borrow a jack.
The walk is long and dark. At one point he trips over a pothole, and he falls and tears a hole in his pants. And he just keeps stumbling along in the dark, worrying about what he’s going to do.
It’s dark, it’s late, and he starts to imagine what will happen when he reaches the farmhouse. The farmer will probably already be in bed. He’ll probably be cranky about being woken up. But the man keeps walking.
And as he walks through the dark, other thoughts come to him. What if the farmer doesn’t have a jack? Farmers have guns. What if he pulls that out? The farmer’s probably going to sic a huge dog on him. What if the farmer realizes that the man’s alone and he robs him? He thinks, “I don’t deserve to be treated that way. None of this is fair.”
And at this point the man is scared, but he’s also getting angry. He knows that this farmer is going to be a jerk, but he still needs his jack. So he walks up to the front door and he knocks. And as he waits for a response, he imagines this angry farmer screaming at him, threatening him, chasing him, shooting him. And he hears footsteps.
The door swings open, and a man says, “Can I help you?” And the stranded man, all red-faced and angry, yells, “I don’t want your dang jack anyway!” and he grabs the door and he slams it shut and he storms away.
What Is Catastrophizing?
Now, catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion or thinking error. It’s when we think of a current or future situation as a catastrophe.
So for example, you worry that you’re gonna fail a test, and then you imagine what would happen when you do fail. You’re gonna get kicked out of school. You’re going to end up working a dead-end job, fail at life, and die homeless on the street. And all of this because of a test at school.
Catastrophizing is imagining the worst. It’s taking a difficult situation and interpreting it as being horrible, terrible, and unrecoverable.
We all know that person who, if they get a B on a test, wails, “I’m failing math.” Many of us have had a parent who when we didn’t want to do our chores, they said something like, “If you don’t do your chores, your college roommates will hate you and no one will want to marry you.”
Like in the story about the jack, catastrophizing often starts with a genuine setback, like getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. But then the thinking error turns that reality into a belief that something horrible is likely to happen. “I’m gonna get shot or robbed and attacked.”
At its root, catastrophizing is about our habitual response to challenges or shortcomings. So take a second pause, this video, and ask yourself, how do you think about failure?
When these thinking habits become part of a repeated pattern, they lead to depression or anxiety, and people tend to imagine that they’ll never be able to recover.
So here’s some common examples.
Someone with anxiety imagines losing control of himself. So for example, a man with a panic disorder predicts that if he goes to the mall on a weekend afternoon, he’ll have a panic attack, and then he predicts that having a panic attack would be a catastrophe rather than just being really uncomfortable.
Or a woman with depression envisions herself being depressed forever and never feeling happy again.
Or a 30-year-old man imagines himself never finding love and imagining that if he doesn’t, he will be plagued by intense feelings of loneliness 24/7 from now until he dies.
Or a teen equates not being in a text group with being totally rejected by everyone.
How Does Catastrophizing Mess Us Up?
So how does catastrophizing mess us up? We have all experienced some tragedies in our life, including painful rejection or failure, and I think that we trick ourselves into believing that if we can expect the worst we can prevent it. But in reality, usually the exact opposite happens.
So think about the man from the jack story. Because he feared getting rejected, he slammed the door shut himself. He cut himself off from the opportunity to get the solution he needed because he was thinking about everything that could go wrong.
Seeing the worst often invites the worst. Not only do we cut ourselves off from opportunities, but we invite the exact problems we’re hoping to avoid.
So if we go into a conversation expecting the other person to get defensive, we often lead off by being harsher or more rigid, inviting the other to be more defensive.
If you expect that your crush will reject you if you ask her out, then you don’t ask her out, and you end up alone on the weekend.
Catastrophizing invites depression. When we imagine a future that is bleak, threatening, or hopeless, then our brain responds by putting out less serotonin and dopamine. These are the happiness, pleasure, and motivation chemicals. Why be happy or hopeful when the future is impossibly dreary? This leads to a cycle of withdrawal from life, a lack of motivation, and a pattern of depression.
Catastrophizing also invites anxiety. It forces our brain to see threats and failure everywhere. And our brain responds to perceived threats with a very real physical fear response, the fight/flight/freeze response. And this contributes to social anxiety, general anxiety, panic attacks, and more.
Expecting the worst makes us hopeless and depressed about the future. It makes us unmotivated. “Why try if I’m just gonna fail?” And it also enables us to wallow in self-pity. Catastrophizing closes us off to opportunities and options that might work, and it leads to this sense of paralysis.
Why Do We Catastrophize?
So if catastrophizing is so harmful, why do we keep doing it? At this point I’ve got to pause because some of you out there have started this super unhelpful thought process of “Yeah, why am I such an idiot? I am so broken. See, I am defective because I do this stuff.”
You need to stop that. Take a deep breath. You are not defective. You might be doing something that’s not working well for you, but that doesn’t mean you’re bad or broken. It means you can change and get feeling better.
So if you need to, pause and take a second to be kind to yourself and practice some courage. Changing how we think takes work, but you can do hard things.
Let’s go back to the question, why do we catastrophize?
Well, it serves a function, albeit a dysfunctional one. We do it for one of two reasons.
Number one: preparing for the worst is a coping strategy, preventing us from feeling risk or uncertainty. So if I expect myself to fail, I won’t be disappointed if I do. If I reject myself first, then I don’t have to worry that my crush will do it to me.
Catastrophizing is an attempt to avoid feelings, to protect ourselves from feeling sadness or worry. But the crazy thing is that when we try not to feel, we often end up more depressed and anxious.
Expecting the worst also justifies us for not even trying, and it attempts to excuse our failure before we put in any effort. So no wonder it feels more comfortable than putting your heart out there. It’s comfortable in the short term, but it crushes the joy out of life in the long run.
When you catastrophize, you’re not risking failure, but you can’t have success. You’re not getting rejected, but you’re still alone on the weekend.
Dysfunctional function number two: sometimes we think or we’ve been trained to believe that the best motivation is fear, that in order to motivate ourselves to study or to go to work we have to predict doom and gloom. Fear as motivation works briefly, but in the long run it makes us depressed and anxious and overwhelmed and less functional.
Let me use a school anxiety example. So a kid’s not going to school because of anxiety. The parents also feel anxious about this, so they go into a room and say, “You have to get up or else you are going to ruin your life. You have to go to school or you’ll never get a good job,” etc., etc. And in the short term this gets the kid out of bed and into school.
But then she spends the rest of her day worrying about being a failure, and the next day she has even more anxiety and it’s even harder to get motivated to go to school.
So do you do this? Do you try to give yourself a pep talk but it’s really more of a fear talk? We or our parents may have used fear in the past as a strong motivator, but it’s just not a sustainable source of motivation. So let’s find something that’s more functional than our self-justifying, self-defeating catastrophizing.
How Can We Stop Catastrophizing?
So first off, try to start with a good night’s rest. When we’re sleep-deprived, we’re hypersensitive to threats and we’re less resilient in the face of challenges. When you’re rested, you’ll have a greater ability to face these challenges bravely.
Number two: accept uncertainty as a natural and acceptable part of living a wholehearted life.
This is a fundamental life skill that can be developed and practiced. It involves changing how you think about anxiety. So instead of labeling anxiety as bad or harmful or terrible or “I can’t handle it,” you say, “Well, this is uncomfortable, but it won’t injure me.” You say, “I can do hard things.”
Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important. Living life is about embracing acceptable risk and the anxiety that comes with it as a normal and natural and helpful part of life. And as you do this, you build up emotional muscles to experience uncomfortable emotions.
You can also practice this by doing mindfulness and meditation or just doing something every day that scares you.
Number three: motivate yourself by what you want in life, by what you value and you hope instead of trying to use fear. These are called positive goals.
So instead of saying, “I have to go to school so that I don’t die homeless on the street,” you say, “I choose to go to school because I want to be a therapist when I grow up.” Okay, so I never said that as a kid, but you get the idea. Choose what you do want in life. Break it down into small goals, and then just bravely work toward those little by little.
Here’s the classic CBT approach to ending catastrophizing. Number one: just start by noticing when you are catastrophizing. What are the words you use? Are they things like never, terrible, fail, rejected, awkward, or anything else that’s an exaggeration, that makes things out to be worse than they are?
And then get better as well at noticing which situations you tend to catastrophize about, and write down what it looks like when you do it. Ask a family member or a friend to point it out to you.
So this is the first step in emotion processing. It’s observing, it’s getting better at noticing what’s going on with your thought patterns and your behaviors.
Then the second step in emotion processing is to pause. Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you have to believe it. So now is a great chance. Just slow it down and take a deep breath.
Number three is explore. Challenge those thoughts. Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true. Learn to notice and gently question your thoughts.
You don’t have to believe everything you think, but you also don’t need to beat yourself up for having these thoughts, like saying things like, “What’s the matter with me? Why do I always think this way?” That’s also not very helpful.
So instead, get better at noticing your thoughts and letting them pass through. This is another skill from acceptance and commitment therapy. It’s called cognitive defusion, and you can practice it with activities like Leaves on the Stream or the skills I teach in my video How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts and Overthinking. So I’ll link those below.
Number four is choose.Replace those thoughts with something more honest and more helpful.
Once you start to notice this type of thinking, you pause and you explore it. You can bravely pick up your emotional sword, and you can begin to combat this kind of thinking with more honest and more rational thoughts, thoughts that line up more with who you want to be and your values.
Some of the ways I like to do this are to think things like this: “Okay, even if something bad did happen, I can learn from it. It’s not the end of the world,” etc.
Here’s a couple more examples. Say someone says something like, “Oh no, I am such an idiot. I already made a mistake on this report; I’m never gonna finish it. Or if I do, it’s gonna be so flawed that it won’t matter. I’m gonna get fired no matter what.”
Okay. Wait. Pause. That’s not true. Let’s explore some alternatives here. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’m only human. I’ll fix this mistake, and if I need to ask for help I can. But I’m just gonna keep working hard and try to be more careful in the future.” Or you could say something like, “Nobody’s gonna fire me for a mistake or two in a report.”
See how we’re replacing the catastrophizing thoughts with thoughts that are a little bit more helpful?
Here’s another example: someone says something like, “I can’t believe I said that to my boyfriend. He’s gonna leave me for sure this time.” Let’s replace that with, “I shouldn’t have said that to my boyfriend. I really need to learn how to talk kindly when I’m upset. I’m gonna apologize and try to make it right. Hopefully he’ll understand and accept my apology and we’ll both learn something from this.”
So this approach to challenging catastrophizing requires us to stay engaged even when there’s a risk of things not going perfectly. And this is called vulnerability, the potential for success and also for getting hurt. But the only alternative is to guarantee failure by cutting yourself off before you even try.
So I’m a big fan of acceptance and commitment therapy. It’s a process which basically trains you to get better at feeling, to open yourself up to the emotions that come with living the life you value — love, joy, sadness, worry, hope, excitement, anxiety.
As you come to wholeheartedly embrace life and your goals and your values, you’ll get better and better at living with some risk, and you’ll be rewarded with lots of good things happening to you all the time.
May good things come to you as you courageously face life and the risks, joys, loves that come with it.
For those of you who are long-time followers, you may have noticed that this post is a remake of one of my old ones, and that’s because that post had a couple things that needed to be improved. So I hope you don’t mind me making a better version of my post on catastrophizing. So thank you all for reading. Take care.
Check out my course, Change Your Brain, below for more tips on improving your mental health.