Catastrophizing, also called catastrophic thinking, occurs when a person predicts the worst-case scenario or feels that things are far worse than they are. It is a type of warped thinking, also called cognitive distortion. Catastrophic thinking may occur in both children and adults, but people can learn methods to change their way of thinking and prevent drifting into negative ideas.
Catastrophizing per se is not a mental health disorder. However, when combined with other conditions, such as sadness, stress, depression, and anxiety, it can be a precursor to post-traumatic stress disorder where the person relives vivid recollections of a terrible experience in the past.
Catastrophizing happens to everyone now and then. To a certain extent, it is not bad because people imagine the worst possible scenarios, and they are ready to face them or prevent them from happening. Some people handle these experiences better than others, and some people encounter catastrophic thinking more frequently than others.
- The classic example of catastrophizing is people constantly worrying that they may fail after taking an exam.
- Failing a test may make people think that they are incompetent.
- However, failing an exam does not indicate the success or capabilities of a person.
A study done in 2015 suggested that people who engage in catastrophic thinking are more prone to develop anxiety disorders.
6 ways to stop catastrophizing anxiety
Here are some strategies for managing the channel and breaking free from catastrophizing.
- Analyze reality
- These negative thoughts sometimes could be way far from reality. People should take a step back to observe how reality is different from what their thoughts are implying.
- Most of these thoughts do not come true.
- Keep a journal
- Writing down the catastrophizing thoughts may help people stop worrying about it for a while. Putting what you’re experiencing on paper activates the left side of the brain, which is believed to help people see the problem more logically. Reading what they wrote organizes thoughts and allows people to think more realistically.
- One may start to discover new things about themselves and their thought processes.
- Change the course of energy
- Work toward the thought
- To stop the reoccurring, catastrophic ideas, people may have to shout "stop" or "no more" out loud or in their brains. These phrases can stop the flow of ideas and assist a person to change their way of thinking.
- Instead of focusing on a negative consequence, imagine a good or even a less negative alternative.
- Schedule a worrying time
- This may seem strange but schedule some time to revisit all the bad thoughts that are collected during the day. This is a way of acknowledging one’s ideas and indicating “think about them later.”
- By the time people reach that scheduled worry time, they forget most of their concerns and the ones that remain may not seem so awful after all.
- Taking deep and slow breaths through the nose and mouth helps to let go of the tension when spiraling out. Scary thoughts activate the body’s stress response, making people feel they are in danger. When the body relaxes, the mind follows.
What are the treatment options for catastrophizing anxiety?
Severe cases of catastrophizing anxiety require medical attention.
To reduce catastrophizing, medications to address other issues are prescribed, such as:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
As catastrophizing is linked to mental health disorders, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most often used types of talk therapy.
CBT aims to change thought and behavior habits. In the instance of catastrophizing, the therapist or psychologist may be able to help identify illogical ideas and replace them with sensible ones.
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Petrini L, Arendt-Nielsen L. Understanding Pain Catastrophizing: Putting Pieces Together. Front Psychol. 2020;11:603420. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.603420/full
Bystritsky A, Khalsa SS, Cameron ME, Schiffman J. Current diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders. P T. 2013;38(1):30-57. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3628173/
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