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Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to despair. When a situation is upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, they still feel like they are in the midst of a crisis.

How to Fight Catastrophic Thinking

Everyone has negative thoughts. But for many people, negative thinking can spin out of control and out of proportion to the reality of a situation. A relatively modest error, disappointment, or source of embarrassment (or even the possibility of one) can sometimes become, in one’s mind, a cause for major fear or despair—in short, a catastrophe.

This pattern of thinking can itself be destructive because unnecessary and persistent worry can lead to heightened anxiety and depression. But through learning to identify and reframe initially exaggerated conclusions, along with other techniques, people with a tendency to make a proverbial mountain out of a molehill can get a better hold on their negative thoughts.

What are some examples of catastrophic thinking?

When someone makes a mistake at work, she might engage in catastrophic thinking by exaggerating how poorly the error will reflect on her and concluding that she will be fired for it—and, perhaps, that this will lead to other severe consequences, like losing her home. An airplane passenger may catastrophize by interpreting turbulence as a sign of an imminent crash. Someone who incorrectly assumes that a relationship, or her reputation with others, has been irreparably damaged because of some regrettable behavior could be described as catastrophizing.

What is catastrophic thinking a sign of?

Catastrophizing has been linked to a number of adverse experiences and behaviors, including anxiety, depression, and anger-related problems. It can be a tendency of individuals who have generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other conditions—each of which is diagnosed based on a broader list of symptoms. One can also engage in catastrophic thinking without having a diagnosable disorder.

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Catastrophizing and Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain involves a complex mix of physical and psychological factors. This does not mean that chronic pain isn’t real, only that the brain and body both play a role in the experience of pain. Studies show that people with chronic pain tend to report a lower quality of life if they catastrophize their pain—thinking about it as intolerable and uncontrollable—which may lead to heightened distress, pain, feelings of hopelessness, and even depression. Fortunately, there are tools available to help prevent catastrophizing from worsening the effects of chronic pain.

Why does catastrophizing make the effects of pain worse?

Catastrophizing, which is sometimes called “magnifying,” can be thought of as a second burden or injury that follows the initial one, such as a flare-up of pain. Thoughts that zoom in on pain and emphasize the worst-possible outlook for the future (“I will always feel this way,” or “I will never be able to ___”) may exacerbate stress and anxiety. For some, catastrophizing may also discourage physical activity, which can be a valuable part of the management of certain forms of chronic pain. 

How can you reduce pain catastrophizing?

Therapists with training in modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (which involves elements of CBT and mindfulness) may help improve quality of life for someone who has chronic pain, in part by helping the person challenge any catastrophic thinking. Informal tactics such as bringing awareness to catastrophizing and reframing the thoughts can also be helpful.

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