How To Spot—And Stop—Catastrophic Thoughts, According to Clinical Psychologists

Photo: Stocksy/Aleksandra Jankovic
The dark reality of life is that at any given moment, some terrible thing could happen that ruins your day, your plans, even your life as you know it—a catastrophe, if you will (not to be a bummer or anything). But while we’re all innately aware of this possibility, constantly focusing on it can leave you always dreading the next moment, caught in a mindset that blocks you from experiencing the positive potential of life. Finding cognitive balance means both acknowledging the very valid basis for this kind of mindset, while also learning how to stop catastrophic thinking when it’s doing nothing for you (other than sending you into a tizzy).

Experts In This Article

“I think of catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, as envisioning what you’d expect to happen in a horror movie,” says UK-based clinical psychologist Julie Smith, DClinPsy, with whom I spoke in relation to her partnership with meditation app Calm. (She created a 12-part content series for the app to guide listeners through moments of high stress.) “Your mind goes to that worst-possible-case scenario and plays it over and over again, which can trigger huge levels of anxiety.”

"Your mind goes to that worst-possible-case scenario and plays it over and over again, which can trigger huge levels of anxiety."—Julie Smith, DClinPsy, clinical psychologist

This typically happens in situations where you perceive your environment is or could soon become unsafe, regardless of whether that’s true. As an example, take Dr. Smith’s recent trip to the coast of England with her young kids. “As we were heading toward the coastal edge, I could see this cliff, and it was still 50 yards ahead of us, but my mind immediately went to the worst-case scenario, imagining my children running toward the edge and falling off,” she says.

In this case, her catastrophic thoughts reflected a very possible danger (even if it wasn’t imminent). And as a result, they served a purpose: “I decided to hold my children’s hands and was able to plan and say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to walk in this direction,’ and ‘We’re going to follow this trail,’” she says. “The catastrophic thinking helped me keep everyone safe.”

This kind of situation proves the inherent value in our ability to catastrophize. “It's not something that anyone's getting wrong, and it's not a fault in the brain,” says Dr. Smith. “It's really your brain doing its one core job, which is to keep you safe and help you survive.”

The problem arises when the catastrophizing starts happening in response to a situation that actually isn’t unsafe or highly risky—but that the mind insists on seeing as such. Consider some negative scenarios that aren’t nearly as dangerous as the possibility of falling off a cliff, like a partner taking a while to text back, or a boss making a less-than-stellar comment about your work at your annual review. Perceiving the former as evidence that your partner must want to break up with you or is cheating on you would be a clear example of catastrophic thinking in action, as would viewing the latter as an indication that all your work over the past year has been terrible or worthless.

These negative thinking patterns can be psychologically damaging. “If I’m catastrophizing at the beginning of every day, telling myself I’m going to fail at whatever I need to do, then it becomes a real hindrance,” says Dr. Smith. The same thing goes if you’re constantly catastrophizing in a relationship, jumping to the worse-case conclusion that a partner no longer loves you when there isn’t actually any indication of that. This kind of doomsday thinking can cause you to fear or dread a reality that’s highly unlikely, triggering unnecessary stress that can send your heart racing at night or start your mornings off on an anxious note.

What are the three parts of catastrophic thinking?

The negative impact of catastrophizing is related to the three-step process by which it typically unfolds, according to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear. Here are the three parts of catastrophizing:

  1. A benign thought gets “magnified into something huge and horrible,” says Dr. Manly. Let's say you’re meeting a friend at a coffee shop on a hot day and happen to notice that you’re sweating. This neutral observation would turn into a thought along the lines of, This is so gross, and I must smell terrible.
  2. You begin to ruminate on the negative thought, which grows in magnitude. In this example, you might think, My friend will think I’m gross, assume that I don’t take good care of myself, and not want to be friends anymore. (You have no evidence that this is the case, but you convince yourself of as much.)
  3. Helplessness settles in, as you come to the (mistaken) conclusion that there's no other possibility aside from the worst-case scenario. This leads to feelings of overwhelm, despair, and defeat. In the example above, you might even go so far as to cancel the meeting with your friend because you don't have the skills to cope with the catastrophic thoughts, or you underestimate your ability to do so.

What causes catastrophic thinking in the first place?

The brain tends to err on the side of caution, making it easy to fall into catastrophic thinking at the first perception of danger. Especially in times of high stress, you’re more likely to let your mind go to a catastrophizing place.

“In any given scenario, your brain is looking for red flags that you might not be okay or that something bad might be about to happen,” says Dr. Smith. And if it perceives any of those signs—even if they aren’t actual signals of emergency—it can quickly start to surface worst-case scenarios.

After all, when an emergency is actually happening, there often isn’t time to work out all the possible things that could occur before taking action. “In order to keep you safe, the brain will focus on the worst thing and make you hyper-aware of that outcome in case you need to quickly change directions or reprioritize,” says Dr. Smith.

"[If you have anxiety] you're more vulnerable to catastrophizing because your brain is already geared up to start asking, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen here?"—Dr. Smith

That cycle is all the more likely if you’re already operating with a baseline level of anxiety—which also springs from feeling unsafe or insecure in your environment, says Dr. Smith: “You're more vulnerable to catastrophizing because your brain is already geared up to start asking, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen here?’”

Though catastrophizing on its own is not a mental illness, it can sometimes surface as a symptom of one. In particular, those who have a mental health condition like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or any kind of anxiety disorder may be more prone to doomsday thinking, says Dr. Manly.

By a similar token, people with an anxious attachment style or deep-rooted fears of rejection may also be more likely to catastrophize within relationships, specifically. “For example, if you had unpredictable caregivers growing up and the risk of abandonment was ingrained early on, then you might be hyper-vigilant of signs that this may be happening in future relationships and start thinking catastrophically,” says Dr. Smith.

In this case, any slight change in a relationship—maybe a partner is being slightly less affectionate or is slightly tougher to get a hold of—could set off the alarm bells. “As soon as you begin to feel unsafe in the relationship or things aren’t as you predicted them to be, you can start to catastrophize,” says Dr. Smith. That might look like wondering if a partner even cares about you anymore after they take an hour to respond to a text during the workday (rather than weighing the possibility first that they might just be busy).

How do you stop catastrophic thinking?

1. Acknowledge (rather than attempting to ignore) catastrophic thoughts

As with any kind of thoughts, in order to do something about catastrophic thoughts, you have to become aware of them first. At the outset, it may be easier to start developing that awareness in retrospect; Dr. Smith suggests finding a time at the end of a week when you're level-headed to reflect back and recall specific catastrophic thoughts from the week, what led up to them, and how they made you feel.

It’s important to do this without any self-judgment, so you feel fully capable of identifying and labeling certain thoughts of yours as catastrophic. “People definitely get caught up in the idea that they shouldn’t have catastrophic thoughts and that, if they do, they’re just being negative and need to be more positive,” says Dr. Smith. “But then you end up judging yourself for having had the thought, which just puts you in a worse place than where you were initially; not only are you anxious, but also, you’re feeling terrible about yourself.”

Instead, aim to view the fact that you had the thought as a neutral and normal thing so that you're able to comfortably consider its origins and its effects.

2. Look for your own bias

Once you can acknowledge catastrophic thoughts, it’s important to recognize the disproportionate space they occupy in your mind—aka your bias in believing them to be true, despite other possibilities.

“The power of any thought lies only in how much you buy into it as a true reflection of reality.” —Dr. Smith

“When you start to recognize, ‘Okay, this is one possible perspective, but there are also other scenarios that could happen, and this one may not be the single best reflection of reality,’ it takes away some of the overpowering strength of the initial thought,” says Dr. Smith. “And it’s important to remember: The power of any thought lies only in how much you buy into it as a true reflection of reality.”

3. Practice a thought-defusion exercise

Sometimes, the difficulty in figuring out how to stop catastrophic thinking lies in just how connected you are to those thoughts. In this case, a defusion exercise can be helpful to create some distance between you and the thoughts.

Dr. Smith says to start by changing your language. “Rather than just verbalizing a thought to yourself or others as is, add the phrase, ‘I’m having the thought that,’ in front of it, as in, ‘I’m having the thought that my children might fall over the edge of this cliff,’ or ‘I’m having the thought that I'm going to fall and die,’” she says. “This way, you’re essentially getting an arm's length view of the thought so you can see it for what it is: just a thought.”

Another strategy that Dr. Smith uses with her patients is having them write down catastrophic thoughts (either in a notebook or on Post-It notes) and label them as such. “This way, you can see them visually for what they are, and they're not stuck in your head being the only possible perspective,” she says.

4. Consider other perspectives

Once you’ve come to the helpful conclusion that any given catastrophic thought is not reflective of the only possible thing that can happen, it’s helpful to push yourself to visualize those other possibilities. “You already know what the worst is that could happen, so what's the best that could happen? And what is something neutral that could happen?” Dr. Smith suggests asking yourself. “When you start to consider these perspectives, you’ll automatically be less focused on the worst-case scenario and have a more balanced view.”

Of course, determining those other perspectives is often easier said than done—particularly when all you can focus on is the catastrophic option. One way to make broadening your perspective a little easier is to challenge the initial thought by “taking the thought to court,” says Dr. Smith. This means looking for evidence that the thought is “absolutely true and inevitable,” and then also finding evidence that something different could happen, she says. “This can help to loosen your belief in the first thought being absolutely factual.”

The important thing to note with this kind of thought-challenging strategy is that you’re not outright denying the potential of the initial catastrophic thought; that worst-case scenario might indeed still happen. Instead, you’re just disempowering the idea that it’s the only possible perspective, “which can really be enough, in and of itself, to move on from it,” says Dr. Smith.

5. Use a mindfulness exercise to redirect your focus

“Catastrophizing results from engaging in thought patterns that pull us into a negative-oriented future, but mindfulness can help you stop catastrophizing by gently bringing you into the present,” says Dr. Manly.

This can look like engaging in a short session of deep breathing or a quick micro-meditation. If you struggle to turn off the flurry of thoughts in your brain in order to engage in meditation, you might try using a wearable stress-relief device; these employ physical sensations like low-frequency sounds, vibrations, and temperature changes to circumvent the stress response and shift the mind into a place where it's able to relax.

Turning to an activity that requires all (or most) of your mindful attention is another mental health tip for nipping catastrophic thoughts in the bud, adds Dr. Manly. You might try journaling, taking a bath, or walking a new route in a nearby park—all of which are activities that can also help neutralize the negative energy associated with catastrophizing.

Saying a short positive affirmation to yourself can also help root you in the present moment if you find that you're spiraling. For instance, if you're worried about an upcoming work presentation and feel yourself jumping to worst-case conclusions, you might say something like, "I’m intelligent, and I’ll be able to come out on the other side, no matter what happens." Just a simple dose of positive thinking can work wonders for your mental state, helping you to mitigate anxiety and move toward overcoming negativity in the moment.

6. Seek professional help

If you find yourself regularly caught in the cycle of catastrophic thinking and struggling to get out of it, or if catastrophizing is keeping you from doing the things you love, it's a good idea to see a therapist or psychologist.

Various modalities of psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), can help you find ways to habitually reframe catastrophic thoughts and avoid cognitive distortion. Clinicians trained in rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) are also adept at teaching patients how to conquer different kinds of irrational beliefs, including catastrophic thoughts.

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