Do you always find yourself thinking and stressing about the worst possible outcome in any situation? Or do your friends sometimes tell you that you’re being dramatic or unrealistic when you express your fears about what could happen? If you answered “yes,” you might be catastrophizing.
“Catastrophizing is that not-so-fun trick your brain tries to play on you where you get caught in this death spiral of extreme ‘what ifs’ that may push you into panic, immobility or fight-or-flight mode,” said Megan Rhoads, a clinical psychologist in California.
“To put it simply, as the planning and executive functioning part of our brains (the prefrontal cortex) gets stimulated with worry and over-planning, it sends a stress signal to the primitive part of our brains (the brain stem),” she continued. “Since the brain stem is less developed and cannot reason through the difference between stress being a saber-toothed tiger and stress meaning it will rain tomorrow, we overreact and move into hyper-drive, trying then to think of every possible scenario that we may need to address. This causes us to catastrophize as a means of survival.”
In other words, your brain is trying to protect you by making you believe the world is out to get you. Luckily, you aren’t alone in this. Everyone deals with catastrophizing at some point ― even therapists. Here’s how they tackle it:
1. Question the thoughts.
Anna Zuidema, the clinical director of Good Life Therapy, said that her go-to method for combating thoughts of catastrophe is to question them. This approach helps to confront and challenge these automatic thoughts in the present moment to identify whether there’s an actual threat, or if it’s a product of our negative thinking patterns.
“When faced with a negative thought, I stop and ask myself, ‘What’s the evidence that I have for that thought?’ I look at it and ask myself if it makes sense — is it realistic or rational?” she explained.
By doing this, you’ll realize that your worst-case thoughts aren’t actually rooted in facts. When this happens, Zuidema said she then challenges herself to “come up with ways it isn’t and question what else it could be.”
2. Reframe the thoughts.
After you’ve interrogated your thoughts, if they’re not rooted in facts, then this would be a good time to try reframing — a tactic that works for Shagoon Maurya, a counseling psychologist and psychotherapist who works with clients virtually.
“Challenge your negative thoughts by coming up with at least three other ways that situation could go. Furthermore, replace the pessimistic outcome with an optimistic one. This will help your brain incorporate more possibilities and therefore have a realistic approach,” she said.
3. Name and validate your emotions.
Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a licensed marriage and family therapist at The Zinnia Practice, said she finds it helpful to name her emotions.
“[When I realize I’m] making a mountain out of a molehill and that the mountain is built on fear, anxiety or stress, I name my emotions, validate the emotions, take a 10-minute timeout to breathe, and then I come back to tackle the situation,” she said. “If I can’t seem to get out of these thought spirals, I reach out to a loved one who is very rational. They help walk me through the thought spirals and remind me that it is my fear or anxiety talking. Once I have calmed down, I can then work on problem-solving.”
4. Identify the trigger and make a plan.
People often say awareness is the first step, and this is the case for Rhoads. Being aware of what triggers your catastrophizing will ultimately help you to stop this thought pattern.
Rhoads said her triggers include not taking enough breaks during the workday, being “hangry,” having a problem she can’t immediately solve and being anxious.
“I try to plan for those events and things as best as I can,” Rhoads said. “Always having a snack on-hand, asking for help in solving a problem, talking to my partner about how we’re going to tackle said anxiety-provoking situation, etc.”
In a similar manner, if your trigger is associated with doomscrolling, then taking some time away from social media might be a good place to start.
5. Write it all down.
Once you’ve put down your phone and closed your laptop, consider grabbing your journal. According to Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of Journey Pure, journaling can be a great way to deal with catastrophizing.
“It’s a way of expressing the thoughts in my head. I write about what worries me and the events leading up to it,” he said.
After that, he implements a couple practices mentioned above.
“Next, I challenge my worries and write down other possible outcomes that could also happen with equal probability. This helps me reframe my mind, challenge anxious thoughts and acknowledge that there can be other possible outcomes other than the worst-case scenario that I’m imagining,” he explained.
6. Practice mindfulness.
“Mindfulness and acceptance are the two major antidotes to catastrophizing,” said Noël Hunter, licensed clinical psychologist and director of MindClear Integrative Psychotherapy in New York. “The key is being able to notice when the what-if spiral is beginning and try to bring yourself back to the present moment.”
You can do this by implementing a few breathing techniques, like inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for four seconds. You can also do a grounding exercise: Mentally acknowledge five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Do this until you’re more fully in the present moment.
“Yes, terrible things might happen tomorrow, but right here at this moment I am just fine,” Hunter added. “Building up the resilience to accept that we can’t control bad things from happening is what can allow us to essentially get off the what-if train.”
7. Tell your brain you don’t need the alarm.
For Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counseling, addressing her own mind helps to kick her catastrophizing.
“I will say to my brain, ‘thank you, but no thank you,’” she said. “This acknowledges that my brain felt there was a threat and at the same time the catastrophizing thought is not needed right now. It’s my way of turning off that anxiety alarm.”
8. Distract yourself.
For the moments when challenging and reframing the thoughts feel like too much effort, consider a temporary distraction.
“I use distraction when challenging the thoughts is difficult,” Garcia said. “If it’s a particularly stubborn catastrophizing thought, I will do something else to give my brain a rest. That might be watching a funny TV show or going for a walk with my husband and kid.”
9. Be gentle with yourself.
Constantly sorting through thoughts of worst-case scenarios can probably feel exhausting. Be kind to yourself during this time, said Avigail Lev, a psychotherapist in California.
“Practice using self-compassion techniques to make friends with these difficult feelings and sensations,” she said. “Put your hand on your heart, gently rubbing it and sending it warmth and comfort. Stay present and kind with your experience in the same way that you would with a crying baby. Bringing the experience closer, staying loving and kind with it, and making space for all these difficult emotions and sensations in your body.”
Lev added that if it helps, try repeating some compassionate phrases to yourself. For example, “it makes sense that I feel scared” or “it makes sense that I feel helpless in this situation.”
10. Seek professional help.
Even your therapist has a therapist. If you find that you absolutely can’t stop catastrophizing and it appears to be causing you anxiety, it might be time to see a professional, Osibodu-Onyali said.
“Sometimes catastrophizing can also cause you to feel stuck and unable to take action,” Osibodu-Onyali added. “It could also cause you to become impulsive and make decisions that you otherwise regret. Also, if catastrophizing is causing you emotional distress, adversely affecting your relationships with others or your work, then it might be wise to speak to a professional.”