What Is Catastrophizing And How Does It Affect You?
By Julia Thomas
Updated December 20, 2018
Reviewer Cessel Boyd
A high school history teacher used to admonish his students with variations of the following: "If you are late to class, you will soon stop coming to class. Then you will start ditching all your classes and doing poorly in school. Eventually, you will drop out of school, become a drug addict, and end up homeless and on the street".
That history teacher was catastrophizing.
What Is Catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is when you take a situation and envision the worst possible scenario. The catastrophizing definition also includes taking a minor negative event and perceiving it totally out of proportion - literally, a catastrophe.
The history of the teacher was catastrophizing because he took a minor event like coming late to class and turned it into a life-changing event that would forever sour the course of a high school freshman's life.
Of course, this high school teacher was joking. He thought his little speech was so exaggerated and over the top that it was funny.
But what happens when thoughts like this run through your mind seriously? What happens when your mind conjures up similar scenarios, and you don't think of them as funny and over the top, but actual possibilities?
Everyone worries now and again, but some people turn the act of worrying into an art form. Unlike the occasional worriers in the minor leagues, catastrophic thinkers are professional worrywarts. If worrying were a sport, they'd be the MVPs. If worrying were a subject, they'd have a Ph.D. Unfortunately, the only prize for catastrophic thinking is exactly what a catastrophic thinker would expect: negative outcomes.
That's not to say that the ridiculous scenarios conjured up by the champions of catastrophizing come true. Not at all. As the French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, "My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened." However, all that negative thinking can take a toll in other ways.
How Does Catastrophizing Affect You?
Too much catastrophizing can affect a person in two ways: physically and emotionally.
In his book Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns refers to catastrophizing as another name for the magnification part of "Magnification and Minimization," number six on his list of common cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions are patterns of inaccurate, negative thinking that have been shown to lie at the heart of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. The idea, developed by psychologist Aaron Beck and expounded on by Burns is that the negative thinking of cognitive distortions leads to negative emotions. Consistent negative thinking leads to consistent negative emotions, and that's where the depression and anxiety come in.
As a member of the cognitive distortion family, catastrophic thinking bears little resemblance to reality, but it can have a real effect on the catastrophic thinker's life. When you catastrophize, you build a small problem into a disaster of epic proportions. That kind of sustained thinking is toxic to your emotional climate.
As a man named William Ralph Inge is credited with saying, "Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due." Spending all your time worrying, imagining catastrophes that may never happen, robs you of the joy of the present and borrows with interest from your future.
Catastrophizing is such a powerful force it can influence a person's physical health. Pain catastrophizing is a real phenomenon, so real that acknowledging its existence lead to the development of the catastrophizing pain scale to measure and examine the role of catastrophizing in how people experience pain.
Though it isn't completely understood, it has been shown that engaging in catastrophic thinking can lead to a person feeling higher levels of pain and is also particularly linked to instances of chronic pain. In other words, the more a person dwells on their pain, the more pain they feel. The pain isn't necessarily all in their heads, but their minds are influencing the pain they feel.
Combating Catastrophic Thinking
The good news is that unlike what a habitual catastrophizer might think, catastrophic thinking is not incurable. If you are someone who fears you have fallen into the trap of catastrophizing regularly, fear not. You can learn to stop.
In Feeling Good, the first step Burns describes getting rid of cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing is learning to talk back to those thoughts. Burns further breaks down what he means into three parts. First, you need to learn to recognize when you're thinking strays into the realm of cognitive distortions. Second, you categorize the thought by the type of distortion, in this case, catastrophizing. The final, most important step is the "talking back" part. Here, you provide a "rational response" to your over-the-top catastrophic thoughts.
For example, let's say you're at work and you make a mistake. Maybe you're a server and you screw up someone's order, or you're a white-collar worker, and you forgot to cross your "T's and dot your "i"s. Catastrophic thoughts start to bubble up. You start convincing yourself that this mistake is the end of the world. This mistake means you are bad at your job and a loser. Your boss is going to fire you. With that on your record, you will never be able to find a new job. You will use up all your savings, be unable to pay your rent/mortgage, and wind up homeless…Sound familiar?
Here's where you stop yourself. You label this thought-train as distorted thinking, specifically catastrophizing. And you come up with all the reasons why this train is off-track. One, you tell yourself, one mistake does not a loser make. Two, bosses don't usually fire people over one little mistake, especially not if the worker recognizes it and fixes it. And so on. You can take whatever thoughts you throw at yourself and render them impotent.
For Harry Potter fans, this act of answering back irrational thoughts rationally can be compared to the "ridiculous" spell for banishing boggarts. Boggarts, for those not tuned into the Harry Potter universe, are creatures that exist to frighten people. They accomplish this goal by changing their appearance to reflect the individual fears of the people who encounter them. The way to get rid of the boggart is to find a way to laugh at them. When you can laugh at your fears, that means they no longer frighten you, and thus you have foiled the boggart's primary purpose.
In very much the same way, when you learn to recognize that you are catastrophizing and counter your fears with facts, your run-away fears will slink away, defeated. Far from scaring you, you will also stop feeling the negative effects of those heavy thoughts.
Two Heads Are Better Than One
John Newton, wrote: "We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday's burden again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it." Catastrophizing is doing the latter - carrying the burden of tomorrow before you are required to bear it, and even worse, a burden you likely don't ever have to worry about.
Or, as the joke goes,"Worrying works - 99.9% of the things I worry about never happen." The irony, of course, is that worrying in no way prevents bad things from happening; they either happen, or they don't. All that catastrophizing about things that won't happen is just wasted emotional energy; time spent suffering when you could have been enjoying yourself, appreciating the moment rather than dwelling on what might be.
It turns out that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was right in proclaiming, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Catastrophizing is the art of transforming the ordinary into unspeakable fears. And yet these imagined scenarios that are unlikely ever to happen can have a disastrous effect on your body both mentally and physically. Somehow, by creating moments of fear where none exist, you create a trap of spiraling fears that is hard to escape from and has real consequences on your ability to appreciate life and live it to the fullest.
Because catastrophizing is such an unhealthy habit to fall into, it is important to rid yourself of it. But it can be hard to take that first step towards renouncing catastrophizing for good. And it's not always as easy as it sounds to recognize when your thinking is going off the rails. You can attempt Dr. Burn's methods of talking back to yourself on your own - but you may find that seeking out a mental health professional is a valuable tool in your campaign against catastrophizing.
A trained professional can help you practice identifying and responding to catastrophic thoughts. A professional can also work with you on other methods of tackling catastrophic thinking, and address any residual harmful effects from chronic catastrophizing.
You can find professionals to aid you in this process here at https://www.betterhelp.com/start/. Take the time, put in some effort, and start living in the present instead of an unwanted future that probably won't happen, anyway.