Catastrophic thinking

Catastrophising is when you automatically imagine the very worst-case scenario for a situation. It’s a response that you have trained your brain to do. The worst outcome appears to be the only one imaginable and any other outcome which may be more positive seems completely out of the question.


This makes situations seem much worse than they actually are and this can lead to a high state of anxiety and a real sense of hopelessness about each situation and also the future. 
Let us look at a particular situation to see how catastrophising can work. This is most likely a scenario that many of us have experienced and here we can look at how we jump from something so simple to a complete catastrophe.

Catastrophising: learning to de-catastrophise

A husband is 45 minutes late home from work. He always arrives home at 6 pm but time is passing and now his wife is feeling concerned. She begins to let her imagination run wild and to imagine all the awful things that may have happened. Maybe he’s had an accident on the way home from work.

The catastrophising begins as the minutes tick by and she's imagining he is in hospital, dead, she’s imagining breaking the news to the kids and pretty much arranged his funereal, moved house and began a life as a single parent. Extreme right?  

This problem of catastrophising allows no middle ground for the what-ifs. No sensible explanation as to why he is late, no calmness or rationalising, but high levels of anxiety, full-on panic mode and straight to imagining that the worst situation has happened. 

What is it and how can it occur?

Catastrophic thinking is a big problem for many people and can be particularly heightened for those who suffer high levels of anxiety.
Sometimes, some people can focus their attention on the negatives of any given situation and at the same time push the positive situations right down, as if there is no chance that they are remotely possible. 

Man with blurred face and hands on head Experts believe that this kind of behaviour may sometimes be caused and deemed a ‘learned behaviour’. This could mean that this was learned from parents through upbringing. If a parent catastrophises situations, then it could be learned by the child who may think that this behaviour is completely normal and then carry on with this into their adult years, all the time believing that this is ‘normal’. 
Catastrophising can also be a way of preparing one’s self for the worst can scenario. Meaning, prepare for the worst and if it doesn’t happen then great. Then, if it should happen then that person would be ready for it. So you might think that ok, let's prepare for the worst and if it doesn’t happen then that’s a bonus. The issue is that once catastrophising becomes the norm, it can begin to feel intense and grow so much that these thoughts begin to take over your life in all areas. 
Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can also play a part in the thought process of a possible outcome of a certain situation, and this also needs to be considered when working or dealing with catastrophe issues. 
I do feel that it’s important to know that the good news is, if a behaviour can be learned, so it can be unlearned. 

Practical support for catastrophic thinking

The first thing that will need to happen before any of the steps below can even begin to help, is recognising that there is an issue. Recognising that catastrophic thinking is happening, that it’s a problem and owning it. Only then, can you begin to work on this issue and the steps below can help you do this. 

Let’s imagine a situation that can be catastrophised and unpick it one step at a time.
One morning I am stuck in traffic. I left in plenty of time for work but roadworks have been put out without me realising it, and now I’m stuck there and running late for work. So let’s begin the catastrophic thinking.

  • I am now running late so I will be late. 
  • I will be late and my boss will tell me off.
  • She will take me into her office.
  • I will get a dressing down and get sacked.
  • I will have no money, lose my home and have nothing!

Great, that’s that situation catastrophised, so let’s begin to unpick it….
1.     What’s the worst thing that could happen?
2.    What’s the best thing that could happen?
3.    Which situation is more likely to happen?
4.    If the worst situation does happen (I get the sack), how will this affect me in:
·     a day
·     a week
·     a month
·     a year
By asking myself the above questions I can begin to rationalise the situation. It’s unlikely I would be fired immediately if I were late on this one occasion so the likelihood is that I’ll apologise for being late, explain the traffic situation and get on with the day.

Woman scrunching up skirt

Maybe I’ll make up the time during lunchtime or after work but it’s a situation where sometimes, these things are simply out of our control and it is not likely that the worst will happen.
However, let’s imagine that the worst situation does occur and I get fired. Will this affect me in a day? Of course it will, I’m not likely to get a job in a day but you never know. Will this affect me in a week? Again, possibly yes. Will this affect me in a month? Hopefully not, I’d like to think that I could gain employment in this time because if I need a job, I will take anything just to see me through. Will this affect me in a year? No, by then I will have got a job and all will be well. 
So in summary, my catastrophising the small situation of being stuck in traffic, the worst outcome isn’t likely to happen and if it did, it would be ok in the end. 
The same questions can be used for any situation that is catastrophised and can be used as a tool to talk ourselves down from jumping straight to the negative. By using this set of questions, and practising over and over, we should then begin to relax our anxieties over time to learn not to automatically jump to the negative. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Telford, Shropshire, TF2
Written by Nicki Cawley
Telford, Shropshire, TF2

As I counsellor and psychotherapist I understand the issues in the articles I write. I try my best to keep my writing as simple as possible to allow anyone to have a read. No jargon needed! I feel passionate about all of my articles and write them so that I can help as many people as possible. Thank you for reading.

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