Do you struggle with catastrophic thinking? In this article, we’ll be looking at a definition of catastrophic thinking, triggers, effects, and ways to overcoming it.
What Does Catastrophic Thinking Look Like?
You got home from work two hours ago, and you thought your spouse would arrive home an hour ago, but they’re not here yet, and they’re not responding to calls or texts. Your mind jumps ahead. “They must have been in a car accident. The sheriff will be walking to my front door at any minute to tell me that my spouse won’t be coming home again.”Or, you’re finishing your junior year of college, and you get a D on an exam. You lie awake for hours that night stressing out, thinking you’re going to fail the entire class, and that your career plans are probably never going to work out now.
Maybe you’ve been married for three years and you and your spouse have a bad argument. You go your separate ways ostensibly to cool off, but you’re inconsolable. Your relationship must be over permanently. You can never recover from this. Your spouse will never love you again.
Catastrophic Thinking Defined
According to Psychology Today, catastrophic thinking is “ruminating about irrational, worst-case outcomes.” Also known as catastrophizing, this thinking pattern is a cognitive distortion, making situations in your life seem disproportionately worse than reality.
When you’re thinking catastrophically, your thoughts are probably locked in one of two modes:
- Your current situation is awful (worse than it actually is).
- A future disastrous outcome is inevitable.
Catastrophizing like this isn’t exactly the same thing as anxiety. Fear and anxiety can sometimes be useful tools. They are our bodies’ response to a perceived threat. Without fear, we would lose the instinct for self-preservation.
By contrast, catastrophic thinking doesn’t provide helpful information. And, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you habitually catastrophize and then you find yourself in a crisis, your assumption of pending disaster may immobilize you, preventing you from taking necessary action in the present moment.
Experts point out that all this negative thinking causes great cognitive stress – again, making catastrophic thinking a self-defeating endeavor.
Now, if you recognize yourself in this definition, does that mean that you’re unusual or that most other people don’t think this way?
Quite the contrary. Many people catastrophize situations in their lives from time to time but some of us are more prone to this type of thinking, and for a few of us, it becomes pervasive, an overwhelming pattern that prevents you from fully enjoying your life. You might have constant low-level stress, unable to relax and take situations at face value because you’re always expecting the worst.
Catastrophic Thinking: What Triggers It?
At the beginning of this article, we covered three fictional scenarios illustrating catastrophic thinking. To flesh this type of thinking out a bit more, let’s discuss the three categories or situations that are most likely to trigger catastrophic thinking. If you’re going about your day and things are going well, but you’re suddenly confronted with one of these situations, you might find your negative ruminations beginning.
An ambiguous situation can be when someone says, “Can we talk later?” and your mind instantly fills with dread, thinking that they have something awful to tell you or you’ve failed them in some way. When faced with ambiguity in any scenario, when you aren’t sure what to expect or you don’t get clear feedback, you assume the worst.
Most people don’t like the discomfort of ambiguity, whether it be in social settings, the workplace, or family relationships, but some can tolerate it better than others. If you tend to catastrophize, you won’t be able to tolerate ambiguity without assuming the worst.
Think about the last time someone made a vague comment to you and what your reaction was. Did you wait for more information before worrying about it, or did your mind immediately jump to the worst case scenario?
2. ValueWhen you have something in your life that you place a high level of value on, whether that be your career, relationship, a child, etc., catastrophizing tends to be intensified. Maybe you’re always afraid that your spouse will cheat on you, so much so that you check bank statements and their text messages on the sly because you fear the worst.
Or maybe you become an overprotective parent because you tell yourself that you love your child so much you can’t stand to think about anything bad happening to them. The higher the value you place on any person or position in your life, the more you’ll be prone to catastrophize about it if this is your tendency in general.
What are everyday situations that you have a sense of anxiety around? Do you have a fear of flying, or needles, or heights?
Let’s say that you do have a fear of flying. This fear may trigger catastrophic thinking. The plane has reached cruising altitude and you hear an unusual sound. It turns out this is just a normal engine sound, but you instantly assume the worst and expect the plane to start plummeting out of the sky. This is an example of how a preexisting fear can trigger your dread of the worst-case scenario.
How Catastrophic Thinking Affects Your Life
If you’re reading this and you feel like you have a tendency to catastrophize, you probably already realize that this cognitive distortion negatively affects your life.
As we’ve covered, when you have disastrous expectations for a given situation, your negative emotions inhibit your ability to perform well in the present. When you are constantly focused on potential negative outcomes, you lose energy to deal with what is happening right now.
And all of this energy focused on impending doom is actually wasted energy. No one can deny that tragic, painful, and unpleasant events happen. It’s part of being human. But the vast majority of times, your feared disastrous scenario doesn’t happen. And even if it does, your catastrophic thinking only made you less prepared for the outcome.
In relationships, catastrophic thinking can be linked with a fear of abandonment and becoming overly needy or clingy with your partner, or overprotective as a parent. None of these conditions contribute to a healthy relationship or parenting.
Also, catastrophic thinking is strongly linked to both depression and anxiety. Negative ruminations about real or imagined events have an adverse impact on your mental health.
How to Overcome Catastrophic Thinking
It’s one thing to realize that catastrophizing harms your mental health and your relationships, but it’s another to put a stop to this cognitive distortion. After all, you’re not mulling over potential disasters because you enjoy it – you most likely feel helpless to look at a situation any other way.
However, it is possible to adjust your way of thinking and have a more balanced perspective. You don’t have to squash any negative thought that pops up. Rather, you can learn to evaluate them rationally and identify your irrational fears.
You can also learn the skill of temporarily setting aside your catastrophic thinking so you can focus well in the present, promising yourself that you can come back to it later and work through it when you have the time.
When you’re learning to overcome cognitive distortions, professional Christian counseling can be an invaluable resource, whether you participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or some other technique that offers coping mechanisms for negative thought patterns.
You can learn to focus on other possible outcomes and refocus your energies in a positive direction. You can also cultivate your relationship with the Lord and ask him for peace as you struggle to overcome catastrophic thinking.
And finally, don’t forget the importance of self-care as a coping mechanism. When you’re fatigued or overwhelmed with stressful circumstances, you might find yourself much more likely to think negatively.
If you tend to be high in neuroticism, you may struggle with catastrophizing, but you don’t have to turn everything into the worst-case scenario. You can learn how to replace your tendency to catastrophize with a more hopeful approach to life.
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