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8 Ways To Combat Catastrophic Thinking When You’re Struggling

I’m never going to be happy. I’ll be alone forever. I’m going to choke on a Dorito and die alone and it’ll be weeks before anyone notices.

Super dramatic statements like this aren’t entirely unusual. At times, we say them in jest as a way to make process bad situations in our lives.

But other times, these catastrophic statements run roughshod through our brains. It feels like we couldn’t stop them if we wanted to.

Always expecting the worst or assuming that catastrophe is imminent is called catastrophic thinking, and it’s much more common than you think. It can also seem trivial if you’re only dealing with it once in a while when you’ve caught a bad break, but for some people, there’s only ever disaster on the horizon. 

What is Catastrophic Thinking?

Catastrophic thinking is a fancy way of saying that we’re blowing something out of proportion. 

Catastrophizing is when we believe that the worst thing in the world will happen or that something is a lot worse than it actually is. When we think like this, there are no positive outcomes or alternatives – only disaster.  

Catastrophic thinking is something that can be tricky to identify. 

It’s often linked to a cognitive distortion or incorrect belief that we hold about ourselves or the world around us. 

For example, I might believe, deep down, that I’m not very pretty and then feel that no one could ever find me attractive.

Another example would be that the one time you went to the store on your own, you got mugged; you don’t feel safe at all now, and you believe that the world is a terrible and dangerous place to be. While it’s true that there is danger out there, it shouldn’t stop you from ever going out, right?

Basically, catastrophic thinking is like making a mountain out of a molehill, and it’s often triggered by specific situations that highlight our sore points or fears, or push the buttons of our insecurities. 

A woman clutches her had in frustration as she wrestles with catastrophic thinking
What is catastrophic thinking?

The Problem with Catastrophic Thinking

Sure, catastrophic thinking is dramatic, but how is it harmful? 

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the constant expectation of the worst-case scenario means high anxiety levels, which, over time, can affect your mental and physical health in profound ways. 

Imagine constantly expecting the worst or believing that nothing could ever work out for you. 

It’s easy to see how this will negatively affect your self-esteem, your confidence, and your general demeanor. 

I’ve found that the times I struggled with depression were directly related to my inability to stop catastrophizing – and this affected my work, my home life, and even how I looked. 

I simply couldn’t get out of the slump I was in, believing that I was somehow worthless and that everything I was trying to do was doomed to fail. I wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around. 

One of the biggest problems with catastrophic thinking is how it negatively affects relationships. 

No one wants to hang around with someone who is all ‘doom and gloom’ or always points out problems and seems generally pessimistic about life. And, of course, it’s difficult to build a future with someone who sees the road ahead as bleak and miserable.

Finding ways to deal with catastrophic thinking is as essential for healthy relationships and friendships as it is for your own mental health. 

Examples of Catastrophic Thinking

Some of these scenarios may look familiar to you:

  • You didn’t get a text the day after a first date. You assume you are not only unattractive but totally unlovable, and you’ll likely die alone.
  • You slipped up at work by forgetting to submit a report. You fear that your boss will fire you immediately for this oversight.
  • You tried on a dress at the mall, but didn’t fit into your usual size. You believe you are massively overweight and immediately embark on a strict diet.
  • You’ve had a lingering headache for a couple of days. You suspect you have a brain tumor.
  • You tried your hand at surfing but couldn’t get on the board. You decide you are terrible at all water sports and have awful balance. As a result, you rarely try any new activity.

Catastrophic thinking comes in a variety of flavors, but the impact is all the same. So what can you do about it?

8 Ways to Stop Catastrophic Thinking

Here are some ways that you can face catastrophic thinking and move past it toward healthier thought patterns:

1. Get The Jump On It

One of the best tips for dealing with catastrophic thinking is getting ahead of it. 

Sure, that’s easier said than done. I’ll fully grant you that. It means you need to be focused on recognizing it when it happens. 

Journaling helped me immensely in this regard because it gave me a clear picture of when certain situations triggered catastrophic thinking and helped me identify it for what it was.

For me, being alone and feeling lonely often triggered the thought that no one loved me or truly appreciated me for me – and when I started journaling about it, I realized that this was often during times when people around me were really busy and didn’t connect with me as often. 

I started thinking about whether it was the situation or whether it was me that caused this.  

2. Use Realistic and Rational Reframing

This strategy depends on your ability to recognize catastrophic thinking, so getting ahead of it is key. 

Once you can identify that you’re stuck in a catastrophizing rut, you can look at what is realistic or rational.

Let’s talk about what this looks like in practice. 

If you’re expecting to fail a test because you missed one question on the exam paper, start by asking whether the one question you missed is significant enough in an entire exam to cause a fail. Ask yourself whether you completed enough questions to pass instead – the answer is likely that you have.

Or let’s say you stumbled on a question in a job interview. You immediately think, “I blew it. I’m going to be unemployed forever.”

What is a rational and realistic way to reframe that experience?

  • Think about what went well in the interview
  • Acknowledge that interviews make a lot of people nervous and stumbles are common
  • Even if you don’t get this job, it doesn’t mean you won’t find one that’s right for you

Confronting yourself with logic and reminding yourself about the truth or reality of your situation may be enough to jar yourself out of the negative thought pattern

And if nothing else, it plays an important role in retraining your brain’s response to stressful or triggering situations that set you off on a catastrophizing spiral.

3. Counter With The Positive

The next step is to counter your catastrophic thoughts with more positive ones. 

So, instead of allowing yourself to linger on the worst possible outcomes, you focus on what could go right instead. This will probably feel very unnatural to you if you’re accustomed to catastrophizing everything.  You’ll need practice and to hone your skills at recognizing catastrophic thinking patterns in real time.

As a parent, I would often panic when my child was away from me and expect to get a phone call that something had gone terribly wrong and my son was in danger. I worked my way through, “He’s with his grandparents, who are the most cautious and caring people I know,” to “Grandpa is going to teach him how to ride a bike!” 

4. Learn How To Decastastrophize

Now, let’s talk about decatastrophizing. It’s a technique that can really help you handle these overwhelming thoughts. Think of it like a mental toolkit for when things seem like they’re spiraling out of control.

First, identify the catastrophic thought. Let’s say, you’re terrified of of missing a deadline leading to losing your job. First, recognize that this is your mind jumping to extremes.

Next, challenge that thought with some rational questions. Ask yourself: “What’s the actual likelihood of me losing my job over this one issue?” This helps you assess the reality of the situation, which is often not as dire as it seems.

Then, consider the worst-case scenario, but in a realistic way.

Say the worst does happen, and you miss the deadline. Will it really lead to the extreme outcome you’re fearing? Most likely, there are procedures in place, like discussing the issue with your boss or renegotiating the deadline.

Now, plan for what you’d do if the worst-case scenario did happen.

Maybe you’d need to have a conversation with your boss, outline what went wrong, and how you plan to address it. This step is about realizing you have control over how you respond to challenges.

Finally, explore more realistic outcomes. It’s rare that one missed deadline leads to catastrophic consequences. More likely, it might mean a hectic week or a tough conversation, but nothing you can’t handle.

The beauty of decatastrophizing is that it turns mountains back into molehills.

It helps you realize that, even when things go wrong, there are steps you can take and that the consequences are often not as catastrophic as they feel in the heat of the moment.

So much of catastrophic thinking is rooted in fear over a perceived lack of control. This is one way to tackle that fear.

For more on this, check out this video:

5. Prioritize Emotional and Physical Self-Care

Another important aspect of being able to work your way from catastrophic thinking to positive thinking is that you need to be in a better space yourself. 

Even more so if you want to be in a position to pre-empt triggers and stop yourself before you even have those negative thoughts. That means looking after yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

Invest in yourself and learn to treat yourself with grace. Building up your self-esteem is vital. Daily affirmations reminding you of your strengths, abilities, skills, and inherent goodness are crucial in helping to change those incorrect core beliefs that sit at the base of catastrophic thinking patterns. 

And if you can’t get there on your own, reaching out for professional help to get additional support. (More on that in a minute.)

6. Try Grounding Techniques

If you’re caught up in the moment of catastrophic thinking and expecting the worst, there are some physical exercises you can do to help lower your anxiety and help you return to a state where you can reason your way through it. 

Learn an easy deep breathing technique (breathe in for four seconds, hold for six, and breathe out for eight), take the time to meditate and actively calm yourself, or use some of the available mindfulness apps to help you get through the chaos. 

Once you’re in a more stable and open mental space, you can face those thoughts with clarity. 

Want to try the breathing exercise? Here’s a video tutorial to help you. (Warning: it’s a little sleepy).

7. Try Mindfulness

Starting a mindfulness practice has a range of benefits, especially when it comes to managing anxiety and a busy mind.

It’s also a great tool if you struggle to slow down and observe your thoughts without judgment – a skill you’ll need if you’re going to recognize catastrophic thinking before it gets out of hand.

If you’re completely new to mindfulness, here are three books to get you started.

A word of caution: the benefits of mindfulness are not immediate or magical. As with so many things on this list, these are tools that when done consistently over time can make a huge difference.

But it’s a bit like growing. You won’t notice the changes as they’re happening, but one day you’ll think, “Whoa, when did these sleeves get so short?”

8. Speak To a Pro

Sometimes our thinking patterns are so dark and negative that they may be overwhelming. Despite our best efforts, we can’t tackle them on our own, even using the tools above. 

In that case, it’s time to reach out for help.

Speaking to a professional is important because they can help you come up with a game plan.

That might look like prescribing certain medications to help you deal with the anxiety and dark thoughts. 

Or it may take the form of talk therapy, like cognitive behavior therapy, which has also been proven effective in dealing with catastrophic thinking.

There are different options and therapeutic modalities available to you. You just need to partner with the right practitioner to find what works for you.

Many people feel they don’t need help, but remember that you deserve to live a happy and healthy life. Sometimes, this is the best way to achieve that. 

Here’s the good news – you don’t have to stay stuck in catastrophic thinking patterns forever. You actually do have the ability to change. What you need are the right tools, consistency, and time. 

But please know that you can free yourself from these negative thought patterns and get out of your head and into your life! 

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

  • Answer a few questions.
  • Get matched with a licensed therapist.
  • Schedule your sessions.

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