Man thinking on a train journey.

verb –
to view or talk about (an event or situation) as worse than it actually is, or as if it were a catastrophe:
Stop catastrophizing and get on with your life! She tends to catastrophize her symptoms.

It’s something many of us do every day.

Some months ago I got a call from the unemployment office. Years ago I had been unemployed, had collected EI, had started a restaurant, and there was some negotiation over when my EI claim should end. Now years later a supervisor was calling for what felt like an urgent meeting.

I freaked out. I didn’t sleep well for the days leading up to the meeting. I had all my paperwork in order, I was confident I had done nothing wrong. I knew intellectually that it should be no big deal.

Catastrophizing. Making a mountain out of a molehill. Jumping to the wrong conclusions. Expecting the worse. Ever happened to you?

Catastrophizing is one of the classical cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are those emotional coping mechanisms we employ in order to cope with stress and issues in our life. They are things like emotional reasoning – letting our heart make decisions that should be made with our head; or “should” statements – I should be a better person, I should be over anxiety by now, I should not eat that bagel (ok that one may be the right thing to think…). Cognitive distortions keep us sick. We develop these ways of thinking because they work, or at least they used to. It’s tempting to “filter” out positives and believe the worst. Anyone over thirty knows that life will hand you enough manure to convince you that the worst-case scenario is often the right one to believe. Thinking all men are pigs can keep you from ending up in pig crap. Catastrophizing prepares you for the worst, and the worst sometimes happens.

Letting go of our own distorted ways of thinking takes a bucket of work. Being willing to set aside feelings and beliefs that have served us, sometimes for generations, is no simple task. Letting yourself forgive, or trust again, let someone love you, or work through your abuse can be the most daunting thing you ever do. Most of us are tempted to change our actions and hope we will eventually fake our mind into someday playing along. While this can bring limited success, growth happens when we change the way we think, not just the way we act.

Religious people may recall the Bible verse which says that “as a person thinks, so are they”. In therapy we say it this way, “Change your mind and your butt will follow”.

15 thoughts on “Catastophizing

    1. I’m not sure I would want to live in a vulcan world because my emotions add so much to my dreams and my whole. Maybe the key is to learn to recognize when I am emotionally going down a rabbit hole/outside my normal and then let my wise mind take over.

  1. Good post! We do all this “preparation” for all the bad things that might happen, yet I’ve found that when the bad things actually DO happen, most of us handle them pretty well. Then we go back to worrying about what will happen next……..sigh.

  2. Ahhh, the old cognitive distortion thing is presented to me yet again. Yes, I know catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, and should statements all too well. You are dead on when you say cognitive distortions keep us sick and also are tough to battle against. All it takes is a moment of not being focused or consciously aware to slip back into these old things. It truly is a journey trying to get one’s brain to rewire in a healthier way. Keep on going.

  3. To some extent, this sounds like Neglect of Probability bias. Apparently, when we are missing information that allows us to think about the odds of something (like your not knowing why the meeting had been called), we disregard the likeliness of something bad happening altogether. Worry also seems to have only an on or off switch. We don’t actually worry less when there is a smaller probability rather than a greater one of something bad happening. We can’t distinguish between odds of 1 in a hundred and odds of 1 in 10,000. If we think something bad might happen, we worry. So it may not be that this kind of thinking has worked for us in the past or has any other advantage besides convenience. It may be we just aren’t smart enough without some extra training to do any better than that.

  4. As a seasoned catastrophizer, I’ve always wondered why it ‘works’ or why it’s called a ‘coping mechanism’ – when it clearly does neither. Once I had a semi-social worker friend unhelpfully comment, ‘well you must ‘get’ something out of freaking out, or you wouldn’t do it’. Like castastrophizing gave some kind of reward. For years I pondered what kind of twisted benefit I might be getting out of it. What part of coping does catastrophizing allegedly help with? Preparation?

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