The first time I heard of it was from Dr. Phil. This was back in the day when he appeared regularly as an expert on Oprah’s daytime talk show.
In one episode in which he was counseling members of the studio audience, a woman was distraught that her children would be spending Christmas with their father, her ex-husband. The day would be absolutely unbearable without her children with her. Dr. Phil began his advice to her by saying, “Stop catastrophizing the situation.”
Catastrophizing. That word has stuck with me since, memorable in how the sense of disaster conveyed by the word ‘catastrophe’ is combined with a capacity to drastically imagine and anticipate.
While I usually agree with Mark Twain’s sentiment: don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do, catastrophizing is a word worth knowing and understanding.
Cognitive distortions are ways that our mind convinces us to believe something that isn’t really true, and catastrophizing is a common one.
It’s the mental habit of overreacting and exaggerating a situation to imagine the worst possible outcome. Whether or not there is an actual catastrophe on the horizon (and usually, there isn’t) the habit of catastrophizing creates undue anxiety, undermines self-confidence and reinforces a perception of victimhood.
To understand catastrophizing, it helps to understand a peculiarity about how our brain evolved. Our brain has a “negativity bias” which means that negative experiences have a stronger impact on our psyche than positive experiences.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – scanning for and quickly identifying threats was important for our ancestors’ survival when sabre-toothed tigers roamed outside the cave. But in our modern world this inclination can be over-sensitive in situations that are not so life-threatening.
Catastrophizing is the negativity bias run amok. Minor or moderate challenges snowball in your mind to become nightmare scenarios that often lead to an end point where you lose everything and everyone and live out of a shopping cart on the street.
It’s a way to try to exert control when you feel like you don’t have much. If you play a situation in your mind through to what looks like a plausible conclusion, you persuade yourself that you can either prepare for or avoid it. You think you’re being practical, but this type of thinking only sees the worst possible outcome. It perpetuates anxiety, and misses the range of options that are possible and resources that are available.
How do you begin to break the habit of catastrophizing?
Catch yourself in the act
You may not realize how often you catastrophize because it happens so fast. A problem comes up and almost instantly your mind jumps to disaster. Awareness is key to breaking the habit. Start to notice when you're escalating into the zone of catastrophe.
Take some slow, deep breaths (try for 10). This calming response is so simple it’s easy to underestimate how powerful it is. Slow, deep breathing signals to your body that you are not, in fact, under threat.
Expand your range of possibilities
When you catastrophize you only see the most wildly negative outcomes. What are alternative possibilities? Turn your attention away from the negative by making a list of potential neutral and positive outcomes.
Talk back to the negative thoughts
How many times have your imagined dire scenarios actually come to pass? My hunch is very few or, more likely, never. Ground yourself in the truth of your actual experiences.
Give yourself reasons why the worst scenario won’t happen. If you were to make a mistake at work, you actually wouldn’t be fired because, for example:
you’ll take responsibility and correct the error,
your boss trusts and relies on you,
you were recently promoted in recognition of your outstanding performance.
What reasonable steps can you take to reduce the likelihood of an unpleasant outcome? The key word here is: reasonable. Learning to trust that you’ll be OK even if things don’t go your way will help you to focus less on negative outcomes. If you have a big presentation coming up and you’re worried about how you’ll do, you could, for example:
schedule additional time in your calendar to prepare
ask more experienced presenters for advice
rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse again
record yourself and ask a friend for feedback
Catastrophizing serves no useful purpose – it only keeps you feeling bad about yourself and your ability to navigate your life. By breaking this habit you’ll begin to shift your perspective to see your circumstances more clearly: your world is not always teetering on the edge of disaster and you can move forward and take on challenges that inevitably come up. With patience and practice, you’ve got this!
"Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight." - Benjamin Franklin