What is Catastrophic Thinking?

Catastrophic thinking refers to thinking about the worst-case scenarios for any given situation. Let’s say you text a friend and don’t hear back for a few hours. Examples of catastrophizing thoughts in this situation might include thoughts like “something awful has happened to my friend” or “they hate me and never want to speak to me again.” When engaging in catastrophic thinking, it’s hard to think of any other alternatives, even if the catastrophic thoughts are pretty unlikely.

Signs of catastrophizing include feeling like you’re stuck in your head and unable to think about anything else, not being able to see other alternative outcomes besides the worst-case scenario, experiencing an increase in negative emotions like anxiety, sadness, fear, or anger, noticing an increase in negative self-talk, and feeling as though your thoughts are racing. You might also notice yourself spending a lot of time researching your fears online or feeling as though you need a lot of reassurance from family and friends that your thoughts are unlikely to be true.

What Causes Catastrophic Thinking?

Catastrophic thinking in and of itself is not a diagnosable mental health condition. Rather, it’s a part of thought patterns known as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are negative and often unrealistic thoughts that aren’t based in facts and lead to increased negative emotions.

Catastrophic thinking is often a symptom experienced with underlying mental health conditions, like depression, trauma, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, and chronic pain among others. An underlying mental health or physical health condition might make catastrophic thinking worse - and the opposite is also true - catastrophic thinking can make the other symptoms of an underlying mental health or physical health condition worse. 

Let’s take a look at how catastrophic thinking can interact with mental or physical health concerns. 

  • Depression:  When you have depression, you’re more likely to ruminate or fixate on your negative emotions. Then catastrophic thinking enters the picture and tells you those negative emotions are never going to go away and you’re going to feel like this forever, which makes you feel even more upset. 
  • Anxiety:  When you experience anxiety, you’re already worried about what’s going to happen next. Catastrophic thinking comes in and tells you that you’re not worrying enough and you should be thinking about something even worse that could happen, which then increases your anxiety. 
  • Trauma:  When you’ve experienced trauma, you’re hyper focused on cues in your environment that could signal danger. Catastrophic thinking amplifies that focus and adds more potential safety concerns to the list, further increasing your anxiety and hypervigilance. 
  • Chronic pain or physical condition:  If you experience chronic pain or another chronic physical condition, you’re already constantly aware of the pain or discomfort you’re experiencing. Catastrophic thinking amplifies that pain and discomfort and tells you it’ll be never ending and will only get worse, which then in turn causes you to experience more pain.

While researchers are unsure of the exact cause of catastrophic thinking, as well as other cognitive distortions, these thought patterns might arise following major events in your life that change the way you think about yourself, other people, and the world in general. Or, you might have brain chemistry that makes it more likely you’ll have catastrophic thoughts and can’t recall a time when you didn’t think this way. Regardless of the cause of catastrophic thinking, there are skills you can use to help reduce those thoughts and start feeling better!

How to Stop Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking can have a big impact on your life and it’s important to learn skills and strategies to help reduce these thoughts. While there are skills you can learn to do on your own, if catastrophizing seems to be well out of your control, don’t be afraid to reach out for help!

1. Relaxation Techniques - Mindfulness and Deep Breathing

Mindfulness is helpful for catastrophic thinking as it brings you back to the present moment. When you’re catastrophizing, you’re either focused on something that already happened in the past or are worried about something that could happen in the future. One way to practice mindfulness is to start with grounding techniques. Grounding techniques utilize your senses to help you shift your focus out of your head and into your body.

  • A common grounding technique is called 5-4-3-2-1 and has you name and describe in the current moment 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. To make this even more effective, try saying each of these things aloud or writing them down, which helps you slow down your thinking.

Paced breathing is a skill that helps you relax your body and get out of your head. There are many different variations of paced breathing.

  • One common variation is boxed breathing, where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds before starting the sequence over again.
  • Another common variation is breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, focusing on having the exhale last longer than the inhale. If you find yourself getting distracted, you can also count your breaths to give your mind something to focus on.

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence based therapy that helps you explore the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT incorporates several techniques that can help you change your catastrophizing, including cognitive restructuring, which helps you learn how to recognize distorted thoughts, challenge the accuracy of those thoughts, and replace those thoughts with more positive and realistic ones.

3. Medication

While there is no medication that specifically treats catastrophic thinking, taking medication to help any other underlying mental health conditions that you’re experiencing can help improve your catastrophic thinking. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and explore medication options. Common medications that can help catastrophizing include anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.

When to Get Help

If you’ve tried to manage your catastrophic thoughts on your own and they’re still having a major impact on your ability to focus in school, participate in activities, enjoy spending time with family and friends, and experience positive emotions, it might be time to get professional help. If you’re struggling with catastrophizing, know that you are not alone, and help is available to you!

The fastest way to find relief is to connect to a licensed professional specializing in evidence-based care for teens and young adults, like the therapists at Joon.

If you’d like to explore therapy options and see how Joon can support you, you can get matched with a therapist or email us at hello@joon.com

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November 3, 2023
Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Content Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Content Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Hammond provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatments from a cognitive-behavioral framework, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Prolonged Exposure. Dr. Hammond has specialized training in treating mood and anxiety disorder, trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, and self-harm and suicidality.

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