Why, Oh, Why Do I Catastrophize?
Do you Catastrophize?
Do you have extreme negative thoughts that seem to just pop out of the blue? Maybe you’re preparing for a fun vacation and you think to yourself, ‘What if my plane crashes and I never see my family again’? Or, if you have a mole, you automatically think it is cancer. This is catastrophic thinking—a distorted or unhelpful way of looking at things that predicts the worst possible outcome. There is no in-between with these kinds of thoughts—they lead you to consider the worst possible scenario, every time. This sort of thinking can create a great deal of anxiety and sadness, because, in the moment, we believe it to be true.
I remember once when I discovered I had an umbilical hernia, my father, who is a doctor, sent me to see his friend who also specializes in oncology, but I didn’t know that and he didn’t tell me. Well, when
I saw the sign on his door, I freaked out for a minute, thinking, ‘What if I really have cancer, and they didn’t want to tell me?’Then I thought, ‘What if it’s not an umbilical hernia, but really stomach cancer?’When I saw that sign on the door all of these thoughts ran through my head. Of course, it turned out to just be an umbilical hernia. I did need emergency surgery that same day, because a hernia can burst, but it wasn’t cancer, and the doctor was just this general doctor who specialized in oncology.
We all have these kinds of thoughts, but someone with anxiety or depression may have them pop up more frequently and have a harder time letting them go. I specialize in working with clients with anxiety and depression, and have advanced training in Cognitive Therapy. This is a kind of psychotherapy that helps clients change unhelpful thinking and behavior, which leads to enduring improvements in mood and functioning.
I wanted to demystify some beliefs my clients typically have when they experience catastrophic thinking. I know a lot of you out there who have these kinds of negative thoughts feel the same way as my clients, and I want to put your mind at ease, as well.
I must be different than everyone else because I have these terrible and awful thoughts.
You are not different than anyone else because you experience catastrophic thinking. You have these thoughts because you are a normal, thoughtful and an intelligent person. Everyone has these types of thoughts from time to time. You may just pay more attention to them—perhaps because you have anxiety, depression or you are just more attuned to your negative thoughts.
It’s very frustrating, and can be upsetting, when these automatic thoughts pop up in your mind. You might think to yourself, ‘My spouse doesn’t think like this, or my friend doesn’t either.’ But, they are what they are—just thoughts—and it’s up to you to let them go, or talk back to them.
If I have these thoughts, I am probably crazy because no one else thinks this way.
You are not crazy for having catastrophic thoughts. There are reasons why you catastrophize. Maybe you have anxiety, or depression or a certain trauma happened to you related to your thoughts. I often suggest journaling or meditating to my clients, or having a third party, like a therapist, listen to what you’re thinking and help you evaluate them. Sometimes catastrophic thinking can teach us something about ourselves. For example, someone may catastrophize about being ill, because, as a child, that was the only time they were given attention. There can be many reasons as to why do you this, and it has nothing to do with being ‘crazy’.
If I think this way, it will come true or will happen to me.
Just because you think something doesn’t make it true. You need to evaluate your thinking based on evidence for it, evidence against it, and looking at any real proof you have that it’s legitimate. If it is catastrophic thinking, you most likely will have more evidence against it. Another helpful question to ask is, ‘What would I tell my friend or sister if they were thinking that way?’ Most likely, you would tell your friend their thinking isn’t true and they should let go of their negative feelings!
As you can see, catastrophizing is something we can all do, at times. It doesn’t mean you are crazy, or that what you’re thinking is true, or that you are somehow different than everyone else. There are reasons as to why you do this. You can explore these reasons by helping yourself through journaling, meditation, counseling, and other tools that can help you replace your catastrophic thinking with a more balanced or helpful way of thinking.
If you find yourself catastrophizing frequently, and are struggling with getting your anxiety under control consider counseling. You can contact me at