Catastrophizing: What it is and how to manage

by | Sep 6, 2023

Catastrophe poses a daily threat. Chest discomfort becomes a heart attack, an engine noise evolves into a $2,000 repair. All the while, depression and anxiety run rampant. Let’s talk about catastrophizing…

What better way to avoid crushing disappointment than to expect – even create – the worst?

It’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, this catastrophizing business can be torturous. And unless we come to understand what’s really going on – and intervene – it can unnerve us forever.

Lots to discuss, so we’ll take care of biz in two parts. First, what catastrophizing is and why we do it. And we’ll get into what to do about it in part two. Off with us…

What is catastrophizing?

Within the realm of cognitive (having to do with mental processes) theory and therapy, catastrophizing is one of the most common cognitive distortions. What are those? Well, they’re exaggerated and often irrational thoughts that hold the power to generate and perpetuate loads of depression and anxiety.

Simply, catastrophizing is when we create, well, a catastrophe that simply doesn’t exist or won’t occur. And we may not even be aware we’re doing it. It’s all about What Ifs?” and worst case scenarios.

Two types of catastrophizing

Okay, there are two types of catastrophizing…

  • In the immediate: You’re sure your heart palpitations are a symptom of serious heart disease. This morning you heard about a new heart institute at one of the local hospitals. So you hopped on Google, grabbed a diagnosis, and called for a referral.
  • In the future: Your anxiety and associated depression have been intense. And, go figure, you’re out of work and interviewing. Two weeks ago you barely survived (so you think) a biggie. Lo and behold, the recruiter just called and you scheduled a second interview for next week. You’re sure you’ll royally blow that one, too.

That’s catastrophizing. Now, it’s really important to understand that catastrophizing isn’t a disorder. Being a cognitive distortion, it’s a manifestation – symptom – of our mood or anxiety pathology.

Why do I catastrophize?

Who really knows why the mind does what it does. But when it comes to catastrophizing, I’ll go with P.E.A.C.E.

  • Protection: If we believe danger lurks around every corner, catastrophizing makes perfect sense. What better form of protection than believing in horrific outcomes? And what better way to justify avoidance?
  • Explanation: Explanations are huge during times of pain. So maybe the self-created catastrophe isn’t the most desirable outcome. But it sure beats being clueless as to what’s behind our desperation and distress.
  • Assurance: As unpleasant as it is, catastrophizing provides a certainty of mind. And when any sense of self is tough to come by, created catastrophes can provide identity.
  • Cry for help: When was the last time you witnessed, or read about, a true catastrophe that someone wasn’t crying out for help? Self-created catastrophes can provide the perfect setting for doing some crying out of our own. And if we’re (un)lucky, a responder may even be willing to stick around and lend a hand..
  • Expectation: What better way to avoid crushing disappointment than to expect – even create – the worst?

When we consider P.E.A.C.E., it’s pretty easy to understand why we may so easily become an ever-cycling, depressed, anxious, and catastrophic mess.

What do we do about it?

Day after day, one catastrophe after another. So many mountains made from molehills. The threats may not be real, but the anguish sure is. And that’s why we’re here.

Let’s get together again in part two and figure out how to manage. Stay tuned. UPDATE 10.5.23: Seems writing part two got gummed up by all this redesign business – my apologies. I owe you one.

If you’d like to learn more about cognitive distortions, check out “Stop depression and anxiety: 15 styles of distorted thinking” And take a look at “Cognitive dissonance: Is it one of your triggers?if you’d like to read even more Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration articles, hit the titles.

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