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Blog reviewed by Adele Burdon-Bailey (BA (Hons), Dip.Psychology, FDAD (NCAC)), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester.

In our daily lives, it's not uncommon for our minds to occasionally wander into a realm of worst-case scenarios. But sometimes we may find ourselves dwelling on potential disasters and imagining the worst possible outcomes in various situations and it feels unmanageable. For example, a loved one is late home and before you know it you are thinking about their funeral arrangements.

This is known as catastrophising, and it can significantly impact our mental wellbeing. In this article, we’ll explore what catastrophising is and why we catastrophise.  We’ll also provide examples of catastrophising, and offer practical strategies to help you stop.

What is catastrophising?

Catastrophising is a mindset where people tend to predict the worst possible outcome in a situation, no matter how unlikely that outcome may be. It might be helpful to think of it like a mental snowball effect - a small worry starts rolling downhill and, as it moves, it grows larger and faster until it becomes an avalanche of anxiety and fear.

Catastrophising can manifest in two ways: making a catastrophe out of a current situation (magnification) and imagining the worst possible outcome of a future event (future catastrophising). Both forms can be distressing and can lead you to develop mental health problems like depression and anxiety. It can also make any existing mental health problems worse.

Examples of catastrophising

Imagine you have made a small mistake at work. Instead of looking at this as an isolated incident, you might start to catastrophise. You might think:

  • "I'm going to lose my job because of this mistake.”
  • “Then I won't be able to pay my bills. I'll lose my house.”
  • “This one mistake is going to ruin my life."

This a typical example of catastrophising. A single event, which lots of people would consider to be small and reasonably insignificant, suddenly spirals into something critical and anxiety-inducing.

Catastrophising can have an impact on all aspects of life, affecting your relationships, health, career and even daily tasks. It's important to recognise this pattern of thinking to begin managing it.

Here are some more examples of catastrophising:

  • Health: imagine experiencing a minor headache and immediately jumping to the conclusion that it must be a sign of a severe, life-threatening condition
  • Relationships: if a friend cancels plans, catastrophising may lead you to believe that they no longer value your friendship and that you'll end up alone
  • Future: projecting catastrophic scenarios onto the future, such as believing that a minor setback will derail all your goals and dreams

Why do we catastrophise?

There is no single cause of catastrophising. For those who do it, it’s likely there are a number of contributing factors.

For some people, catastrophising may be a learned response rooted in past experiences or your childhood environment. Some people may catastrophise as a result of trauma, and predicting the worst is a way of them trying to regain control in an uncertain world. It might also be a protective mechanism, preparing us for the worst to avoid disappointment or hurt, particularly where we have experienced significant trauma in the past.

Also, as humans, we naturally pay more attention to threats or negative information. This is linked to our “fight or flight” response, an innate survival mechanism humans have developed during our evolution. This can fuel catastrophising, especially in times of stress or uncertainty.

Other explanations for catastrophising include:

  • Perfectionism: striving for perfection and having rigid expectations can lead to an exaggerated fear of failure or making mistakes. This can make it more likely that a person will catastrophise;
  • Negative thinking patterns: if you have a habit of dwelling on negative thoughts or have experienced past traumatic events, catastrophising may be your way of anticipating and coping with an upcoming threat;
  • Uncertainty and lack of control: when faced with uncertainty or situations beyond our control, catastrophising can provide a false sense of control by mentally preparing us for worst-case scenarios.

Catastrophising is also widely associated with a variety of mental health disorders:

  • Anxiety: people who catastrophise are more likely to suffer with an anxiety disorder – as this study in Child Psychiatry & Human Development suggests. Catastrophising when it comes to your health may, for example, be a symptom of health anxiety
  • Depression: catastrophising can lead to feelings of hopelessness, guilt and other common symptoms of depression. A 2012 study in Cognitive Therapy and Research found catastrophising was a predictor of depressive and anxious symptoms in children
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): someone with PTSD might view their trauma as evidence the worst-case scenario can occur, leading to catastrophised thinking. A study of soldiers in Clinical Psychological Science found that those with higher levels of catastrophic thinking were 274% more likely to develop PTSD than those with lower levels of catastrophic thinking
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD obsessions can lead someone to have persistent negative thoughts or spiralling of thoughts, which can lead to  catastrophising

How to stop catastrophising

Self-guided techniques

There are exercises and lifestyle changes you could make to help with catastrophic thinking. In your day-to-day life, the following might help you to develop a more positive mindset:

  • Mindfulness and grounding: stay in the present moment instead of worrying about the future. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and grounding exercises can help;
  • Thought-stopping techniques: when you notice that you’re beginning to catastrophise, mentally tell yourself "stop!". Then try to shift your focus to something positive or neutral, or go off and do something to keep you busy and distract you from your thoughts.  You could even postpone your worries to a later time (say 6pm for 20 minutes) and each time the catastrophic thought comes up you say ‘I’ll deal with that later’.  When your worry time comes around later it’s likely that you will either have forgotten about your worries or they don’t seem as important anymore;
  • Self-care: regular exercise, a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep can help manage stress and deal with anxiety, making it easier to break free from catastrophising.

Treatment

If you’re finding that your catastrophising is severely affecting your life, or think it might be a symptom of a more serious mental health disorder, it might be time to consider treatment options. Here are some potential treatments for catastrophic thinking:

  • Therapy: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective talking therapy for catastrophic thinkers. It involves cognitive restructuring or reframing, which can help you to identify negative thought processes, challenge them, and think more positively in the future;  
  • Medication: if your catastrophising is linked to an underlying mental health condition, you might be taking prescription medication to help to treat your condition. This can help to reduce your symptoms, including catastrophic thinking.

If your catastrophising is having a severe effect on your day-to-day life, or you feel it might be connected to a mental health disorder, know that treatment and support for mental health are available.

At Priory, our mental health treatment experts can help you to understand the reasons for your catastrophising and teach you coping strategies for the future. This means you’ll be able to manage your mindset more effectively moving forward.

Get in touch to find out how we can help you overcome catastrophising and build a more positive mental health outlook. 

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020  or submit an online enquiry form here. 

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