Everything will be bad: what is catastrophic thinking and how to get it under control

Employer rejected resume? That’s it, no one will ever hire me, and I will have to beg all my life or sit on my parent’s neck so as not to die of hunger.

Does the child have a fever? This is probably pneumonia, coronavirus, meningitis or something else deadly.

Did your loved one smile while looking at the smartphone screen? He definitely has someone, he will soon leave me, and I will remain alone until the end of my days.

If you tend to build similar logical chains, most likely you are prone to catastrophizing, or, in other words, to catastrophic thinking.

What is catastrophic thinking

This is a cognitive bias that causes us to greatly exaggerate any negative events in our lives. Or even not the events themselves, but some faint hints and probabilities.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapist David Burns, author of Mood Therapy. A Clinically Proven Way to Beat Depression Without Pills, calls catastrophizing the “binocular effect” because the person who is prone to it blows things up to a gigantic scale.

Danielle Friedman, a mental health consultant, sees catastrophizing as a form of distorted thinking that is not based on objective reality. The consultant believes that there are two types of catastrophic thinking.

1. Present Oriented

Then it seems to us that right now something terrible is happening in our lives, although we have no clear evidence of this.

A loved one didn’t answer the phone? He must have had an accident and died. Teenage son rude? He definitely takes drugs, aggression is one of the signs.

2. Future oriented

In this case, we are sure that the catastrophe will happen later.

Did the plane shake in the air? This engine failed, we are about to fall and break. Did the leader make a comment? He will soon fire me , you can collect things.

Remember the fairy tale about smart Elsa? She went down to the basement, saw a hoe on the wall and very vividly imagined how this hoe would fall and kill her unborn child, who would go down to the basement in the same way. This is a classic example of future-oriented catastrophization.

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Where does catastrophe come from?

It’s in our biology

Up to 70% of our thoughts have a negative connotation. We keep bad memories longer than good ones, we react more sharply to negative stimuli than to positive ones.

If a person came to a restaurant, they fed him tasty food there and were polite to him – this is something taken for granted, and he will immediately forget about it. But if the waiter is rude, the steak turned out to be tough, and the card was not accepted for payment, the visitor will boil, will boil for several hours, write a devastating review on the establishment and complain to friends on Facebook*.

A fixation on the negative and a persistent desire to look for the bad even where it doesn’t exist is quite possibly an evolutionary mechanism. We needed him to exercise maximum caution and vigilance, to anticipate danger and avoid it with all our might. For the cruel and unpredictable world in which we lived before, a necessary thing. Whether such thinking is needed now is a moot point.

It grows out of general anxiety

Research shows that there is a correlation between this way of thinking and high levels of anxiety. And not only in adults, but also in children and adolescents.

People who are prone to catastrophic thinking are generally more prone to neuroses and react painfully to many events.

She brings us pleasure

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair says the mechanism is very simple. First, we imagine a terrible scenario, and then, when fears are not confirmed, we experience great relief. The brain “chases” these pleasant sensations and pushes us to catastrophize.

What’s wrong with catastrophic thinking

Some believe that this is an absolutely normal reaction and in general it is better to play it safe once again than to miss something important and get into trouble. There is logic in such reasoning. Indeed, catastrophic tendencies can make a person more vigilant, teach him, say, how to use applications that show the location of family members using GPS, or carefully read papers before transferring money somewhere.

But at the same time, we should not forget that catastrophic thinking is not entirely harmless.

It ruins the mood

Calling morgues and hospitals, swallowing a sedative and imagining in colors how a loved one was smeared on the asphalt just because he did not answer a couple of calls and messages is a very dubious pleasure.

No one likes to experience this and spend hours of their lives in horror, anxiety and gloomy forebodings.

It leads to depression

Psychotherapist David Burns lists catastrophizing as one of ten cognitive distortions that are responsible for depressed mood and depressive disorders.

From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, it is the negative thoughts and the cognitive distortions they generate that lead to depression .

It makes the pain worse

Studies show that catastrophizing people feel more pain. If a person winds himself up and imagines terrible illnesses, it is quite natural that he feels pain, discomfort and other supposed symptoms more acutely.

How to stop catastrophizing

Unfortunately, almost no one succeeds in simply giving up, thinking about the good and not winding oneself up, as all-knowing experts in social networks like to advise. But if catastrophic thinking is getting in the way of your life, there are several ways to get it under control .

Change the wording

David Burns, in his book Mood Therapy, suggests writing down the automatic thoughts that are born in your head in response to a particular stimulus, examining them under a magnifying glass, looking for cognitive distortions in them, and eventually coming up with more logical and calmer formulations.

Here is an example of such a parsing.

  • Thought: “I’m good for nothing and I’ll never get a good job.”
  • Where it came from: “Several good companies rejected my applications.”
  • What cognitive distortions are there: catastrophization, self-devaluation.
  • Answer: “So far I have not been able to find a job , and this is sad. But this does not mean that I am a loser and that they will not take me anywhere. Perhaps I need to be patient, because even very good candidates are periodically rejected. Or maybe you should look at your skills and think about what I lack for a good position and salary.

If you work methodically in this way with every thought that poisons your existence, after a while you will learn to think more realistically and constructively.

Use the “best friend test”

Ask yourself a question: what would you say to a loved one if he was in your place and was tormented by anxiety. Most likely, you would appeal to logic and facts and try to gently convince him that there is no reason to worry . Now try saying the same to yourself.

Make time for worries

Give yourself, say, 30 minutes a day when you can officially worry and cook in your fears. During this time, try to consider what scares you from all sides. Analyze how this fear is rational, perhaps write down your thoughts. When the time is up, switch to work or other things.

Take a break

As soon as a disturbing thought creeps into your brain and pushes you, for example, to search the Internet for symptoms of deadly diseases, tell yourself that you need to wait a bit. At least a couple of minutes. During this time, do breathing exercise , walk, drink tea.

Each time, try to increase the time between impulse and action. If you manage to hold out for 20-30 minutes, the panic will subside, and the thought that caused it will no longer seem so scary.

Contact a psychotherapist

If you can’t cope on your own and it’s hard for you, be sure to look for a competent specialist who can help you. Especially look at those who adhere to the cognitive-behavioral approach to work. It is considered effective against catastrophizing and other similar cognitive distortions.

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*Activities of Meta Platforms Inc. and its social networks Facebook and Instagram are prohibited in the territory of the Russian Federation.

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