Retrain Your Thinking and Stop Catastrophizing

Causes and exercises to try

Catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, is when someone assumes the worst-case scenario or believes that things are much worse than they actually are. It’s a form of distorted thinking, or cognitive distortion. Both children and adults can experience catastrophic thinking, but you can learn techniques to shift your way of thinking and avoid spiraling into negative thoughts.

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Catastrophic Thinking 

Cognitive distortion is when your mind twists information. In catastrophizing, this twisted information grows into a billowing cloud of everything that can go wrong. It can be overwhelming and difficult for a person to realize they’re doing it unless they’re made aware of the problem. 

In children, catastrophic thinking can manifest into feeling convinced that no one actually likes them, that they will never be cool enough, or that everyone is gossiping about them. This line of thinking spirals quickly and feels not just possible but certain.

For children and adults alike, catastrophizing comes down to blowing things out of proportion. It creates barriers to facing challenges because problems seem much larger and harder to handle. You may delay or avoid driving, for example, due to fears about getting severely injured or disfigured in accidents or damaging your car beyond your financial ability to repair it.

Pain Catastrophizing

Pain catastrophizing doesn’t mean someone’s pain isn’t real. It means they’re fixated on the pain, may feel helpless about finding relief, and may feel it’s only destined to get worse.

This kind of thinking can play a role in how someone experiences pain, as measured by the pain catastrophizing scale. This scale is considered one of the most important tools for examining the relationship between psychology and chronic pain and disability.

The questionnaire asks to what degree the person experiences certain negative or irrational thoughts while in pain. Examples include:

  • I feel I can’t stand it anymore.
  • I anxiously want the pain to go away.
  • I keep thinking about how badly I want the pain to stop.
  • I feel I can’t go on.
  • I wonder whether something serious may happen.

Causes

Catastrophic thinking can happen in response to traumatic events in the past that reframed your worldview or led to or reinforced beliefs such as the world is bad, people shouldn’t be trusted, and taking chances leads to getting hurt.

Associated Conditions

Catastrophic thinking can also be associated with mental health and chronic pain conditions, including the following:

  • Anxiety disorders: A 2015 study found that people who engaged in catastrophic thinking were more likely to have anxiety disorders.
  • Depression: One 2012 study found that catastrophic thinking can lead to feelings of hopelessness, which can contribute to depression.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Catastrophic thinking can also be a precursor to PTSD symptoms.
  • Chronic pain: Catastrophizing about chronic pain and associated symptoms like depression, sleep disturbances, and anxiety have been shown to negatively affect coping outcomes in a wide variety of pain conditions, including fibromyalgia (chronic disorder causing widespread pain and fatigue), endometriosis (tissue lining the uterus forms outside that organ), and Parkinson’s disease (progressive neurological illness affecting movement).

How to Stop Catastrophizing

You have the power to change your way of thinking by working on cognitive reframing (looking at your thoughts in a different way). The following steps may help ease your catastrophic thinking:

Self-Guided Exercises 

  • Breathing exercises: Try taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself before addressing your negative thoughts. You can use a breathing exercise app or online video, or simply focus on taking in deep breaths for several moments.
  • Meditation apps: Meditation apps exist for children and adults to help teach ways of practicing mindfulness. These apps typically have options geared toward specific meditation goals like reducing worry or persistent negative thinking.
  • Mindfulness exercises: Mindfulness exercises are based on bringing you back to the moment so you can put some space between what’s happening now and the things you’re assuming will happen.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that includes cognitive reframing or cognitive restructuring. CBT can be used to:

  • Recognize when you're catastrophizing
  • Determine the accuracy of your thoughts
  • Provide ways of coping with and challenging negative thoughts
  • Share techniques for shifting thought patterns in the future to create lasting changes

A small 2017 study found that CBT was effective at addressing catastrophizing in fibromyalgia patients, allowing them to better manage their pain.

Medications

While there’s no medication prescribed specifically to help stop catastrophic thinking, you and your doctor can discuss treating underlying conditions that may be contributing to or causing your negative thinking behaviors.

For example, anxiety disorders can be treated with a variety of medications, including benzodiazepines and antidepressants.

Summary

Catastrophizing is when you think something, someone, or a situation is way worse than what the reality actually is. It's associated with some mental illnesses like anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

You can try to stop catastrophic thinking by bringing yourself to the present and relieving anxiety. If catastrophizing is tied to an underlying mental disorder, it may help for you to work with a mental health professional in getting treatment.

A Word From Verywell

It’s fair to say we’ve all had times when things seemed much worse than they actually were. This happens and is nothing to worry about. However, if the worst-case scenario has become your default mode when thinking ahead, you may be catastrophizing, which is something you should address.

Sometimes meditation and deep breathing exercises can help slow down your thinking and place you back in the moment, away from spiraling negative thoughts. If you’re still catastrophizing after trying self-guided exercises, you may need to reach out for professional help. With consistent effort, you may begin to see more realistic outcomes and stop the cycle of negative thinking. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do to stop catastrophizing? 

You can stop catastrophizing through cognitive reframing, which helps you recognize negative thoughts, challenge them, and come up with more realistic outcomes. Clinical treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and medications.

What mental health disorders cause catastrophizing? 

Mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can contribute to or cause cognitive distortions like catastrophizing. 

What are the signs of catastrophizing? 

Signs of catastrophizing include blowing things out of proportion, thinking the worst will happen, and believing irrational thoughts about yourself, others, and situations that have already happened or have yet to happen. 

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