If You Always Fear the Worst, You Could Be Catastrophizing — Here's How to Shift Those Thoughts

During an extremely stressful time, it's completely understandable to feel more intense emotions than usual. Anxiety, fear, sadness, confusion, frustration, hopelessness, and worry about your health, your family's health, your job, and the future are all common emotions that humans experience. Psychologist Amy Vigliotti, PhD, founder of SelfWorks, told POPSUGAR that these overwhelming thoughts and feelings are completely normal.

What Is Catastrophizing?

The issue with these thoughts and feelings is when they become irrational and debilitating, and make you believe that something far worse is happening or is going to happen. This is a type of cognitive distortion that's referred to as catastrophizing, and it's something a lot of people have experienced. It's likely to occur when you are already feeling anxious because it's a thinking error that is born out of the fear of the worst possible outcome.

"Everyone has some cognitive distortions," Dr. Vigliotti said. "These are errors in thinking that are a normal part of being human." Even so, they are important to pay attention to because they have the potential to influence our feelings and behaviors in negative ways.

Catastrophizing often comes with "always" or "never" statements. It's an extreme form of black and white thinking where the person can become convinced that the results of a particular situation will result in disaster. Some examples of catastrophizing thoughts are:

In the context of a romantic relationship: "If we break up, I'll always be alone."

In the context of academia: "If I fail this test, I'm going to flunk out the whole year. I'm a failure."

In the context of the coronavirus: "What if my family gets sick and I never see them again?"

What Causes Catastrophizing?

Certain situations can be potential contributors to catastrophizing, Dr. Vigliotti explained:

Ambiguous situations: For example, you are texting with a friend and they suddenly stop responding. Their lack of responsiveness could be something positive or negative, but someone may start to imagine the worst, like they got into a car accident.

Valuable people and things: When someone or something is particularly cherished, the thought of loss can be especially hard to manage. Thoughts of loss can come about at any time, but smaller accidents or unexpected incidents can especially bring this about. For example, perhaps your mom got into a tiny fender bender and was physically fine after the accident. Your imagination might lead you to catastrophize and wish she would never drive again because the thought of a fatal accident is too scary.

Fear: All fears, especially irrational fears, are a big factor in catastrophizing. For example, perhaps you have a swollen lymph node, a common outcome from colds and viruses. But you catastrophize and fear that it's cancer or another fatal disease. Or in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, you might wake up with a cough and fear you have the virus.

Tips to Shift Catastrophizing Thinking

The good news is that there are some useful self-help tips that can shift you out of this way of thinking.

Acceptance that bad things happen along with the good: It is important to remember that when bad things happen, they can feel unbearable, but all things are temporary. Human beings are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. So even if a bad outcome is expected, you will bounce back and be able to regain more balance of positive things in your life again. Having a "this too shall pass" attitude can help you mentally get past disastrous thoughts.

Thought stopping: If you find yourself catastrophizing and can't seem to change the thought, Dr. Vigliotti said you can engage in a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)-based technique called cognitive restructuring. This is a practice where you challenge your thoughts. She said you can picture a stop sign or tell yourself "no more" or "stop." Or you can ask yourself questions like:

  • "What interpretations or assumptions am I making about the event?"
  • "Does my emotion and its intensity match the facts of the situation? Or does it just match my assumptions of the situation?"
  • "How likely is it that my worry will come true?"
  • "If my worry comes true, what are the chances I'll be okay in one week? One month? One year?

Alternatively, you can read, sing a song, or talk to a friend about a different topic to act as a barrier or distraction to the thoughts you are trying to distance yourself from.

Be your own support: Try stepping outside yourself and imagine what you might tell a friend in the same situation.

Think about other possible scenarios: Instead of getting fixated on just one possible outcome, try to imagine two to five additional options of what might happen. This will help you regain some perspective. Although you may be focused on thinking "What if this doesn't work out?" or "What if this horrible thing happens?," Dr. Vigliotti said you can instead switch your point of view and think, "What if this does work out?" or "What if this horrible thing doesn't happen?"

Keep up with self-care: "Catastrophizing is more likely to happen when we are weakened by internal or external stressors," Dr. Vigliotti said, such as working too much, feeling overextended or fatigued, physical illness, or not taking time for yourself. She said that avoiding anxiety triggers, like listening to the news or talking to toxic family members, prioritizing your sleep, and doing relaxing activities can ward off this kind of thinking. Other examples she suggested were exercising, journaling, meditation, playing sports or an instrument, coloring, doing puzzles, reading, and cooking. "These self-care practices can protect you from falling into the catastrophizing trap," Dr. Vigliotti said.