Does your mind always jump to the worst-case scenario?
Your friend just declined your invite to go out for dinner, saying they’re not feeling well. You’re bummed, and understandably so: You wanted to catch up—not to mention your sushi craving is severe right now.
Another thought comes to your head: You haven’t seen this friend in weeks. She declined the last time you invited, too, saying she had to stay late at work. Is this a pattern? Did you do something wrong? Oh no, she’s mad at me, you suddenly realize. She hates me.
What just happened in your head is what psychologists call catastrophizing, or dreaming up the worst-case scenario based on faulty assumptions and fears. It’s the verb form of catastrophe, as you are actively creating a catastrophic event in your imagination.
“Sometimes people with anxiety use catastrophizing as a defense mechanism, particularly when they feel a lack of control and wish to regain control,” says Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT, at Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis, LLC.
How would imagining terrible situations help someone *gain* control? It’s the same impulse you have when you hear noises during the night, and you imagine a group of invaders stealing your laptop and eating your leftover casserole. It's the same impulse that makes you crawl out of bed and tiptoe into the kitchen to make sure nobody’s there (except the cat, of course).
“If they imagine the worst possible scenario,” says Williamson, “they can be prepared for it and it won’t take them by surprise. However, this can backfire and increase their anxiety because they’re always living ‘on edge,’ looking for a possible threat when no such threat exists.”
So how do you know if you’re doing it? If you notice any of the following clues, you might be catastrophizing.
1. You're afraid to be honest with loved ones.
“One common thought I have seen is a person not expressing their own interests, disinterests, or boundaries for fear that it will end the relationship,” says Jessica MacDonald, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and certified telebehavioral specialist at Soho CBT and Mindfulness.
Dr. MacDonald gives the example of being too tired to go out but not wanting to tell your significant other for fear of their response—that they’ll find you boring and want to break up, and you’ll be alone for the rest of your life. “Having the thought that any little disagreement or setting of a boundary will blow up the relationship is exhausting,” says Dr. MacDonald. You might develop resentment and the relationship may become less satisfying.
2. You make a lot of accusations (verbally or mentally).
If you constantly find yourself thinking others have malicious agendas against you or are always lying to your face, you might be catastrophizing.
“If someone is coming from a fearful stance over the possibility of something potentially harmful happening, they are more likely to have hair-trigger reactivity to things and people around them, become irritated easily, and often blame the other person,” says Roselyn G. Smith, PhD, licensed psychologist in Miami.
Dr. Smith suggests taking ownership of your interpretation, which may help avoid reactivity and blaming. Your interpretation of what another person said or did may not be what they intended, and your interpretation is not fact. You could reduce conflict and damage to the relationship by recognizing this, asking for clarification, and trusting their answer.
3. You feel worried and you don't know why.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “My life is so good. I should be happy. Why am I so stressed?”
You don’t need a rigid deadline or family drama to have anxiety. Thinking stress only comes from stressors “implies that people worry and feel fear only when it is rational,” says Elizabeth Cohen, PhD, clinical psychologist in New York City. “Unfortunately, that is not how anxiety works.” (Here are more common myths about anxiety disorders.)
It’s fear of the unknown—not just your work stress—that fuels anxiety, according to Dr. Cohen. “The amygdala, or emotional brain, signals us to be on guard for further danger,” says Dr. Cohen. If you feel fear about what’s coming next, even though everything around you says you’re safe and in good hands, you might be guilty of catastrophizing.
4. You have trouble living in the moment.
If you’re fearing the future, you’re going to miss a lot of what’s happening right in front of you. “You’re living in the realm of what could be or what could happen,” says Williamson. “As a result, you’re unable to be fully present with those you love, and unable to fully give them your attention."
And even if you’re “paying attention,” you’re putting less energy into the relationship, since you’re putting so much mental energy into analyzing possible threats.
How to Combat Catastrophic Thinking
The first step: awareness. When you find yourself in the middle of a “what if” thought, you can stop and choose a different path.
Find calm. “When you catch yourself catastrophizing, stop and focus on the present moment,” says Williamson. “What are you feeling in your body? It’s helpful to notice your feet firmly planted on the ground, and to notice your body in this moment, not in the land of what could be.” If breathing exercises work for you, try square breathing.
Accept and forgive yourself for the thought. That means no judgment.
- Challenge the thought. Is it true? Are you making assumptions, or are your conclusions based on facts? What evidence do you have to back it up? Don’t forget to notice the positives, too.
Reframe the thought. In the example of the friend who can’t meet for dinner, you could reframe your original thought (“she’s mad at me!”) to something without assumptions, such as: “This is unfortunate. I was looking forward to seeing her. I should ask her if there’s another time that works better for her, or if there’s anything I can do to help her feel better today.” Learn more here about reframing negative thoughts here.
You don’t need to wait for the next catastrophic thought to practice tackling your catastrophizing. “We need to focus on the small, positive details in our lives,” says Dr. Cohen. “By focusing on what’s going well, we are training our amygdalas to release their hypervigilance and fear, and enjoy what is right in front of us.”
Of course, none of this is as easy in practice as it looks in a bulleted list. If you’re struggling, therapy can be a useful way to help identify unproductive thought patterns and retrain your mental habits. Learn more about treating anxiety here.