What is Catastrophising?

If you find yourself often assuming the worst, the explanation may be that you have a tendency to catastrophise.

Catastrophising at its core is the concept of misconceiving things as being worse than they are in reality.

Catastrophising can be in relation to the past, present and future and it does not discriminate between them. You may find yourself agonising over the details of an event, an action, a situation or disagreement with a partner or friend – blowing them out of proportion and assuming the worst outcome is not only likely but sometimes even inevitable.

It’s worth noting that catastrophising is not a mental health condition on its own, and may not be a sure sign that an individual that requires treatment. However, it could be a sign of some deeper-rooted struggles and may present itself as a symptom in individuals with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to name a few.

How Psychologists see Catastrophising

Catastrophising is a way of thinking called a ‘cognitive distortion’. Other types of cognitive distortions include ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking (looking at things as strictly black or white), ‘mind reading’, ‘emotional reasoning’ (which may sound like “I feel like an idiot so I must really be one”) and ‘labelling’ (where a single mistake or shortcoming becomes a major part of your self-image). Catastrophising overlaps other distortions including ‘over-generalising’, ‘magnifying’ and ‘jumping to conclusions’.

Examples of Catastrophising

It can be difficult to contextualise the concept of catastrophising without thinking of real world examples.

Say you have a presentation to give to some senior members of your workplace. Catastrophising thoughts may follow a path of:

If I don’t impress everyone at work, then they will lose faith in my ability to do my job correctly and I will end up being fired.

Similarly, after a fight with a partner:

My partner will now feel that I am too hard to be with anymore, and they will leave me for someone else.

And an example of catastrophising about a past situation:

That joke I told to my friend the other day was not funny, and we haven’t spoken much since because they don’t think I’m fun to be around anymore and no longer want to be friends.

It’s again worth noting that these are purely hypothetical situations, and the key element that makes them catastrophising thoughts is that these situations are highly unlikely to materialise.

How to Recognise Catastrophising

The experience of catastrophising is going to vary from person to person. However, it usually carries some similar traits.

Typically, someone who is catastrophising will be experiencing intense feelings of stress and fear while looking to the near or distant future. Given that catastrophising requires an element of imagination, the scenario often feels real and confronting. Unlike natural fear, catastrophising is never useful of adaptive.

The first step towards catastrophising less is awareness and recognising the signs. From there you can work towards limitation and prevention.

Strategies to Stop Catastrophising

Once you get a little better at recognising the signs of catastrophising, then you can start strengthening your response, allowing you to work back towards a feeling of calm.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness refers to the practice of being totally present and being totally aware of what we are doing and where we are. It pushes us to be more in the moment, getting away from the worries or anxieties that might be clouding our mind. Mindfulness ‘grounding’ techniques including diaphragmatic breathing, progressive relation, and guided meditation to calm the amygdala (the brain’s threat/danger monitor) to stop it from supressing clear thinking.

Be Solution-Focused

Feeling overwhelmed is a key part of why catastrophising can be so debilitating. By focusing on solutions and working on the things we are able to change, this feeling of powerlessness can be lessened.

Acknowledge That Unpleasant Things Happen

Life is full of challenges, and we all have good and bad days. Just because one day is bad does not mean all days will be bad.

Recognise Irrational Thoughts

Catastrophising often follows a distinct pattern. A person will magnify an initial thought such as “I have a runny nose this morning” one or more times to “I’m only going to get sicker”, then “this is the flu or worse”, and “how will I survive when I’m off work?”. When a person learns to recognise these thoughts, they are better equipped to handle them.

Write Your Concerns Down

Journaling is a great exercise for taking stock of our situation, prioritising to-dos, practising positive self-talk and more.

Woman writes in a journal

Try Thinking About Another Outcome

Instead of thinking about a negative outcome, consider a positive one or even a less-negative option.

Interrupt Repetitive Catastrophic Thoughts With Self-Talk

Saying ‘Stop’ or reciting affirmations either out loud or internally can arrest the downward spiral.

Speak To An Expert

Finally, a psychologist may be just the ally that you need to help you tackle your catastrophising. A psychologist can help you to contextualise your reactions to stressful or scary situations and can provide you with tools and strategies that you need to feel better. Practitioners can utilise many evidence-based treatment approaches such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to help a person address their catastrophic thinking.

Contact the admin team at Brisbane Counselling Centre today for information about how the psychologists can help!

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