What is Catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is a mindset when a person automatically assumes that the worst is going to happen. Usually, it involves thinking that you are in a worse situation than you really are in or even exaggerating the challenges you are facing. This way of thinking is also known as a cognitive distortion. Many doctors also call catastrophizing as a magnifying phenomenon since this makes a person make the situation seem more severe or worse than what it really is. Catastrophizing can cause depression and anxiety disorders in some people. However, the good news is that there are many ways to deal with catastrophizing and set yourself free from it.(1, 2, 3, 4)
An example of catastrophizing is when someone worries about failing an exam. It may start out just as a simple worry about failing one exam, but soon translate to worrying about being a bad student, thoughts of never passing, getting a degree, or getting a job. And the person may ultimately conclude that they are never going to be financially stable. In such situations, it is essential to remember that many successful people have failed exams, and failing one exam does not mean that you will be unsuccessful in life and fail to find a job. However, a person who is catastrophizing will not be able to come to terms with this.
While many people tend to dismiss the phenomenon of catastrophizing as over-exaggeration, it is usually not done with intention. People who catastrophize often don’t even realize they are doing this, and they feel they have no control over their worries. It may even end up affecting their health. Fortunately, the good news is that there are effective treatments that exist for catastrophizing.
What are the Causes of Catastrophizing?
The exact causes of catastrophizing are unclear, and experts don’t really understand why some people develop this phenomenon and others don’t. For some, catastrophizing could be a coping mechanism that they learned from family members or other people who are close to them. It could also be due to a past experience. In some cases, catastrophizing is believed to be related to brain chemistry.
Studies done on people who frequently catastrophize and who suffer from chronic pain have suggested that there could be some changes that happen over time in the pituitary responses and hypothalamus, combined with higher activity in certain parts of the brain that register emotions that are linked with pain that are the cause of catastrophizing.(5)
People who have other mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and depression, as well as people who usually remain fatigued, are more likely to indulge in catastrophizing.
Why Do You Need To Set Yourself Free From Catastrophizing?
It is important for anybody who catastrophizes to break free from this way of thinking. This ‘what-if’ thinking pattern causes a person to constantly live in a state of crisis. And the biggest fact is that 90 percent of all the negative thoughts we have never comes to fruition.(6) Catastrophizing makes a person move from managing one catastrophe to the next without taking a minute to stop and think that the problem could be with their thinking.
While, for the most part, the worst-case scenario never comes to pass, but what does happen is that we live each day in a state of constant heightened stress. Elevated levels of stress for longer than what is necessary eventually take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can lead to a variety of health conditions, a wide range of signs and symptoms and also impact your overall well-being. Some of the symptoms of chronic stress stemming from catastrophizing may include:(7, 8, 9, 10)
- Low levels of energy
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Upset stomach, including nausea, constipation, or diarrhea
- Aches and pains
- Tense muscles
- Frequent infections and colds
- Dry mouth
- Hard time swallowing
- Loss of sexual desire
- Nervousness and shaking
- Ringing sensation in the ears
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
- Constant worrying
- Poor judgment
- Inability to concentrate
- Changes in appetite (either eating too much or too less)
- Avoiding responsibilities and procrastinating
- Tendency to abuse alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
- Having nervous habits like pacing back and forth, fidgeting, and nail-biting
As you can see, these are just some of the effects of chronic stress on the body.
If chronic stress due to catastrophizing persists for a long time, it can cause or worsen many health problems, including:
- Eating disorders
- Mental health problems like personality disorders, depression, and anxiety disorders
- Cardiovascular disease includes abnormal heart rhythms, heart attack, and stroke.
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Menstrual problems
- Skin and hair problems include eczema, acne, psoriasis, and hair loss.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as gastritis, GERD, irritable colon, and ulcerative colitis.
- Sexual dysfunction such as premature ejaculation and impotence in men and loss of sexual desire in women.
Since chronic stress caused by catastrophizing can cause many health conditions, depression, anxiety, and many other adverse impacts on your overall well-being, it is a good idea to set yourself free from this negative thinking pattern.
Ways to Set Yourself Free From Catastrophizing
Mental health experts make use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques and strategies to help people deal with catastrophic thinking. CBT techniques help a person identify their negative and behavioral patterns. With help from their therapist, they are able to identify, recognize their negative actions, and eventually put into practice the techniques that will help them correct and break free from this pattern of thinking.(11, 12)
Here are some tips to help you break free from catastrophizing. These can help you manage the condition and learn how to change your thinking and behavior towards more positive patterns.
- Identify and acknowledge that negative things do happen. It is essential to realize and accept that life is unpredictable, and you have both good days as well as bad days. However, acknowledge that just because you have one day does not mean all your days will turn out to be bad.
- Recognize that you are having irrational thoughts. Catastrophizing tends to follow a very clear pattern which begins with a simple negative thought. Then the person builds and expands on this thought, adding worry and anxiety to it, to ultimately leading to a full-blown catastrophic thinking pattern. To break this negative thought pattern, it is important to recognize these thoughts. Recognize when your thoughts change to thinking the irrational. Once you realize where you are heading, you become more aware and better equipped to handle these catastrophic thoughts.
- Imagine another outcome. Instead of letting your thoughts spiral down a negative cesspool, consider thinking of a positive or even a lesser negative outcome of the situation you are facing.
- Say Stop! Sometimes the easiest thing to do to stop the repetitive negative thoughts is to just say ‘stop’ out loud. Saying stop can help break the stream of catastrophic thoughts and help you change the path of your thoughts.
- Have some positive affirmations ready. The thing about catastrophic thinking is that to break free from it, you have to believe in yourself. If you want to overcome this pattern of assuming the worst. Having a positive affirmation or quotation ready and saying it to yourself every day can help.
- Take good care of yourself. Catastrophic thoughts are more likely to establish themselves and take over your thinking when you are stressed and tired out. This is why getting enough rest and keeping your stress levels under control can help. Think about using techniques like meditation, journaling, and exercise to make yourself feel better and more relaxed.
If these tips don’t work, you can always opt to go for therapy and seek medical help in overcoming catastrophizing. The phenomenon of catastrophizing is closely related to mental health diseases. This is why therapy can be an effective treatment for catastrophizing. As mentioned above, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly used therapeutic remedies used for catastrophizing. A study from 2017 found that CBT helped address catastrophizing in people with fibromyalgia. It even helped them manage their pain better.(13)
CBT is a talk therapy that helps you address your thinking and behavior patterns. When it comes to catastrophizing, your CBT therapist will work with you to make you recognize the negative thoughts. Once you identify and recognize these adverse thinking patterns, you will learn how to replace them with positive thoughts.
Mindfulness is another technique that can help you with catastrophizing. Mindfulness also helps you recognize which thoughts are negative and unproductive, and it enables you to focus on the present to control your thoughts and bring them back to that present moment. Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness can help reduce or even treat catastrophizing. A study done in 2017 on people with fibromyalgia showed that mindfulness can help reduce catastrophizing.(14)
And if all else fails and your catastrophizing is associated with another medical condition like depression, your doctor will prescribe medication for depression, which, in turn, can help reduce or treat your catastrophizing. However, it is important to know that there are no medications that specifically treat catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is a pattern of thinking that makes you assume the worst is going to happen. It is known to be a common symptom of many mental health illnesses, and it can have a profound impact on the overall quality of your life. It may feel overwhelming and even lead to many diseases, such as hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and many others. There are many ways to treat catastrophizing, and mental health professionals prefer to use cognitive behavioral therapy to help people with catastrophizing recognize and identify their negative thoughts and behaviors and how to change them to more positive and productive ones. If you think you are frequently catastrophizing, it is a good idea to consult a doctor or a psychologist.
- Vasey, M.W. and Borkovec, T.D., 1992. A catastrophizing assessment of worrisome thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16(5), pp.505-520.
- Peterson, C., Seligman, M.E., Yurko, K.H., Martin, L.R. and Friedman, H.S., 1998. Catastrophizing and untimely death. Psychological Science, 9(2), pp.127-130.
- Sullivan, M.J. and D’Eon, J.L., 1990. Relation between catastrophizing and depression in chronic pain patients. Journal of abnormal psychology, 99(3), p.260.
- Sullivan, M.J., Rodgers, W.M. and Kirsch, I., 2001. Catastrophizing, depression and expectancies for pain and emotional distress. Pain, 91(1-2), pp.147-154.
- Quartana, P.J., Campbell, C.M. and Edwards, R.R., 2009. Pain catastrophizing: a critical review. Expert review of neurotherapeutics, 9(5), pp.745-758.
- Smith, E.-M. (no date) What is negative thinking? how it destroys your mental health, HealthyPlace. Available at: https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/positivity/what-is-negative-thinking-how-it-destroys-your-mental-health (Accessed: October 3, 2022).
- McEwen, B.S., 2017. Neurobiological and systemic effects of chronic stress. Chronic stress, 1, p.2470547017692328.
- Lupien, S.J., Juster, R.P., Raymond, C. and Marin, M.F., 2018. The effects of chronic stress on the human brain: From neurotoxicity, to vulnerability, to opportunity. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 49, pp.91-105.
- McLaughlin, K.J., Gomez, J.L., Baran, S.E. and Conrad, C.D., 2007. The effects of chronic stress on hippocampal morphology and function: an evaluation of chronic restraint paradigms. Brain research, 1161, pp.56-64.
- Toth, E., Gersner, R., Wilf‐Yarkoni, A., Raizel, H., Dar, D.E., Richter‐Levin, G., Levit, O. and Zangen, A., 2008. Age‐dependent effects of chronic stress on brain plasticity and depressive behavior. Journal of neurochemistry, 107(2), pp.522-532.
- Hofmann, S.G., 2005. Perception of control over anxiety mediates the relation between catastrophic thinking and social anxiety in social phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43(7), pp.885-895.
- Spinhoven, P., Klein, N., Kennis, M., Cramer, A.O., Siegle, G., Cuijpers, P., Ormel, J., Hollon, S.D. and Bockting, C.L., 2018. The effects of cognitive-behavior therapy for depression on repetitive negative thinking: A meta-analysis. Behaviour research and therapy, 106, pp.71-85.
- Lazaridou, A., Kim, J., Cahalan, C.M., Loggia, M.L., Franceschelli, O., Berna, C., Schur, P., Napadow, V. and Edwards, R.R., 2017. Effects of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) on brain connectivity supporting catastrophizing in fibromyalgia. The Clinical journal of pain, 33(3), p.215.
- Lazaridou, A., Franceschelli, O., Protsenko, K., Napadow, V. and Edwards, R., 2017. (318) The association between mindfulness, catastrophizing and pain interference among patients with fibromyalgia: The moderating role of mindfulness. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), pp.S54-S55.