Have you ever found yourself believing the worst about a situation that may or may not have happened? For instance, you call home from work, and your partner doesn’t answer. Immediately you begin to believe that there has been a horrible accident, and you just don’t know about it yet.
That is called catastrophic thinking.
This article will focus on this phenomenon and how to overcome this rumination of doom.
What is Catastrophic Thinking?
Catastrophic thinking is an anxious behavior that may be part of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder or other anxiety disorders. With catastrophic thinking, one tends to think and ruminate on the worst possible scenario of what is or could happen. Most of the time, it is a subconscious thought pattern, and we are not aware we are dwelling on them.
The cause of catastrophic thinking depends upon the person involved. However, the main answer is that it is often associated with another mental health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and dissociative identity disorder (DID).
There are two primary reasons people with an anxiety disorder, OCD, or DID develop catastrophic thinking:
One, people with high-functioning anxiety disorders are trying to use logic to reason their way out of the apprehension they are experiencing. They feel they are protecting themselves by using catastrophic thinking by being ready for the next shoe to drop. However, planning for the worst increases their anxiety, and their catastrophic thinking is soon a runaway train of emotions and fear.
Two, anxious people have a deep-seated fear of failure, and so they imagine the worst-case scenario because an actual real-world incident has triggered their fear. For instance, perhaps a coworker has been fired, or a family member becomes ill; a person may fall into catastrophic thinking, fantasizing what they will do when they become unemployed or when that family member dies.
Recognizing Catastrophic Thinking
It is not difficult to see where catastrophic thinking begins if one has grown up in a highly dysfunctional home, we were practically trained from birth to expect and fear the unexpected. Our parents were not predictable and were unreliable to meet our needs, and often we found ourselves facing abuse from them that was repetitive and horrendous.
As adults, we who grew up in these harmful homes, and this left us with scars. Catastrophic thinking is one of the wounds left on our psyche. Recognizing catastrophic thinking is often difficult until you name it for what it is.
When we find ourselves experiencing anxiety, catastrophic thoughts can seem like they are forever present and hold impending realities. Recognizing these painful and frightening thought patterns can help avoid going down the rabbit hole of thinking that our world is about to end.
Here are some tips for recognizing catastrophic thoughts.
What out for what-if statements. When you find yourself thinking a catastrophic line of thinking, such as “what if I get sick and lose my job, then I’ll be homeless….” What-if statements often lead to catastrophic thinking.
You are unable to focus on the positive. Catastrophic thinking focuses on the worst-case scenario of a situation. If you cannot think of positive alternatives for your situation, you may be caught up in a loop of catastrophic thinking.
You find yourself overthinking things. Overthinking involves desperately preparing yourself for how a situation will be handled by thinking about it insistently. This is a red flag that you are experiencing anxiety-driven catastrophic thinking.
Overcoming Catastrophic Thinking
While catastrophic thinking is challenging to escape, it is definitely not impossible, and below are three suggestions on how you can reshape your thinking.
Suggestion one, recognize catastrophic thinking for what it is, and if you are unsure if you are experiencing this cognitive problem, ask a therapist or life coach to help you.
Suggestion two, think and focus on the positive intentionally. Instead of worrying about that mole on your arm and all it could mean, concentrate instead on what steps you need to take to check it out, such as going to the doctor. Focus on the fact that you will feel better once you get the mole checked out because it is probably not skin cancer. In other words, concentrate on the facts on hand and stop yourself from catastrophizing what might happen.
Suggestion three, stop ruminating on your obsessive thoughts. While this may be harder than it sounds, it is vital to change the subject in your mind or do what is necessary to calm yourself. If there is nothing you can do about the situation your ruminating on it will not help. Use mindfulness to help you escape the trap of ruminating thoughts and catastrophic thinking.
My Personal Experience with Catastrophic Thinking
I do not write this article about catastrophic thinking without knowing what it is like. I, too, have suffered from the fear and panic that can accompany these cognitive storms.
One Saturday, I was in crisis and tried to call my therapist. Her phone was busy. Okay, I thought, I’ll just call back later.
However, I tried to call her at least twenty times more, and her phone was always busy. In my mind, I catastrophized that her not answering her phone was because she recognized my number and was sick of hearing from me. I decided that my therapist was going to quit me, and I was desperate to hear from her.
That was a weekend I do not wish ever to experience again.
The following Monday, I had an appointment with my therapist, and the first thing to come out of my mouth was to ask her why she didn’t answer the phone, fully expecting her to say because I didn’t want to talk to you. Instead, she sat back in her chair, startled, and told me her six-year-old daughter had played with the phone, and they couldn’t find it. When they did, the battery was dead.
I was embarrassed, but my therapist and I were able to work through my catastrophic thinking, and I learned an important lesson.
Catastrophic thinking is painful, frightening, and often terrifying for those who experience it, but it can be overcome, as stated above.
“Don’t get too deep; it leads to overthinking, and overthinking leads to problems that don’t even exist in the first place.” ~ Jayson Engay