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What Is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion after a minor setback. When a situation is upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, they still feel like they are in the midst of a crisis.

For example, if someone prone to catastrophizing makes a mistake at work, they might believe they will be fired. And that if they get fired, they’ll lose their house. And if they lose their house, what will happen to their children? And on and on. This pattern of thinking can be destructive because unnecessary and persistent worry can lead to heightened anxiety and depression.

Catastrophizing likely arose because the brain evolved to be on high alert for potential threats. Stress and anxiety may have helped prehistoric humans anticipate danger and survive in unpredictable environments. But today, a tendency to overreact to problems that are not matters of life and death can hurt more than help.

How Do You Stop Catastrophizing?

Meditation with a mountain view.

Catastrophizing can be countered by mindfully examining one's thoughts. Using mindfulness means observing a thought from a distance, without judgment, as it comes and goes—like leaves floating down a river.

When a catastrophic thought arises, one can consider realistic possible outcomes in addition to the most extreme ones. Just because a situation is difficult now does not mean it will always be difficult or last forever. Scary thoughts and possibilities are not facts.

Getting enough sleep can also help keep catastrophizing in check. Thanks to evolution, when people are sleep-deprived, they become hypersensitive to threats, which can lead to more negative interpretations of benign events.

If catastrophic thinking impairs daily functioning, cognitive behavioral therapy can provide concrete coping skills.

Catastrophizing and Chronic Pain

Man with back pain.

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 perceiving pain. Studies show that people with chronic pain 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.

Mindfulness-based interventions designed to limit catastrophic thinking, with or without medication, can help decrease pain and improve quality of life for patients with a variety of illnesses, from arthritis and fibromyalgia to cancer.

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