Catastrophizing: What It Is and How to Stop the Endless Cycle of Worrying

A man and woman talk at a desk as the man points at a laptop screen.

Catastrophizing is an easy trap to fall into.

Maybe one of these situations feels familiar to you:

You've just given a presentation at work that didn't go as smoothly as you hoped. Now, you're back at your desk with thoughts running through your head: My boss must be so disappointed. She's probably going to yell at me. I'm going to get fired. If I get fired, I'll never find a job. No one will ever want to hire me.

Or you haven't heard from a good friend in a while. Usually you talk every few days, but it's been over a week. You start catastrophizing: Did I do something wrong? Maybe he doesn't actually like me. I wonder if any of my friends actually like me.

Reading those trains of thought on paper probably sound a little dramatic. But it doesn't feel that way when it's happening to you if catastrophizing is a normal part of your life.

What is catastrophizing?

According to Psychology Today, catastrophizing (or catastrophic thinking) is ruminating on irrational, worst-case-scenario outcomes. This type of thinking increases anxiety and can lead to depression. It can also cause people to feel incapable of making a decision or taking action.

(If you're feeling like you may be suffering from anxiety or depression, contact your doctor or another licensed medical professional.)

So how do you recognize catastrophizing for what it is and put a stop to it? Here are four easy-to-implement strategies for managing those out-of-control thoughts:

Just breathe

When your mind is catastrophizing, it's running in overdrive, and it's important to find a way to create some space between you and whatever you're worrying about.

One easy way to start doing that is with a simple breathing exercise to bring yourself into the present moment.

Begin by inhaling through your nose for a slow count of four. Then hold that breath for a count of four at the same pace. Finally, exhale through your mouth for a count of four. Repeat that exercise five times, or until you feel like you're more in control of your thoughts.

Regulating your breathing through breath exercises can lower your heart rate and your blood pressure, which both can become elevated during times of stress or anxiety.

Your physical state does impact your mental state. Once you can slow your physical stress response, you will find that your mind becomes more calm too. And when your physical “flight or fight” response has passed, you'll be able to reapproach the problem from a more reasonable point of view. 

Walk it out

If you're in a position to do so, take a break and go for a walk, run, or bike ride.

The Mayo Clinic cites a number of links between exercise and reduction in feelings of anxiety and depression. Physical activity helps focus your mind on something other than your worries, which can help you break the harmful cycle of negative thoughts. Exercise also releases endorphins that can help increase your self esteem and your sense of well-being.

Even just 10-15 minutes of an elevated heart rate can yield positive results. So take a break, take a walk, and then you'll be ready to approach your stressful situation with a new perspective. 

Think about the best case scenario

When you're catastrophizing, you're telling yourself a story. You're making up the worst possible thing that could happen. One strategy that can help stop that downward spiral is to take a moment to stop and think about the *best* possible outcomes. If taking the positive outlook feels like a stretch, even the practice of brainstorming *other* possible explanations or results can be helpful.

For example, if your boss has put an unexpected meeting on your calendar, instead of jumping to catastrophizing and saying, "I'm going to be fired," run through the other options. Maybe she's going to give you good news! Or maybe she has an update on a project you've been working on. Or maybe she really just wants to catch up. By broadening the possibilities to more than just the worst-possible scenario, you are allowing yourself to mentally take a step back and recognize that you can’t know for certain what’s going to happen.

Keep a journal

We've talked before about the benefits of journaling. It can help you be reflective, keep track of goals, and practice mindfulness and gratitude, just to name a few.

When you feel yourself beginning that negative cycle of catastrophizing, pull out your journal and just start writing. Write every single thought down, no matter how big or small or how positive or negative.

Sometimes, just the practice of getting those thoughts down on paper can be enough to release them. If not, read back through what you've written — read every single worry and fear — and really evaluate whether or not each piece is reasonable.

Reading your words in front of you, instead of just running through them over and over again in your head, once again creates space between you and the problem and allows you to consider things anew.

You might realize some of them aren’t as worrying as they feel like they are inside your head. Then for the ones that are realistic or reasonable to worry about, you can start to brainstorm steps to take to eliminate those problems.

Take the worries from your head out into the real world. This is a really concrete way to move forward and stop the endless merry-go-round of stress in your head.

Role play

Things always feel more serious when they're personal to us. Think about how you'd feel, for example, if your car was stolen. I'm guessing you would be pretty upset. Your whole day (and probably longer!) would be consumed by thinking about what happened and dealing with the fallout.

Now imagine a stranger in line for coffee told you *their* car was stolen. How would you feel? I'm sure you'd feel bad for them. Maybe you'd even offer some help or advice. But would it consume you in the same way *your* car being stolen would? If you're like most people, the answer is no.

The good news about that is we can use this same principal to help stop catastrophizing.

Take the situation you're worried about and imagine how you'd react if your partner, best friend, or a close co-worker came to you with the same problem. My guess is you'd react to the situation with a little more patience and encouragement than you're currently giving yourself.

Think: What advice would I give my best friend? Once you have your answer, consider whether or not you can take that exact same advice in your situation.

The most important thing to remember is you need to create space

Catastrophizing happens when you’re fixating on a problem and the worst possible outcomes. The way to stop is to take a step back from that rumination to allow yourself to recognize that you’re being irrational or extreme.

It’s not easy, but with practice and the right intentions, you’ll be able to find a strategy that works for you to turn your catastrophic thoughts into positive actions.

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