Russell Grieger Ph.D.

Happiness on Purpose


Ridding Happiness Comtaminants 4: Catastrophizing Depression

No horriblizing, then no depression

Posted Nov 30, 2015

As I wrote in my last blog (posted November 4, 2015), we know that depression is a scourge that renders far too many people unhappy, ineffective, and unproductive. It drives people to feel down most all the time, robs motivation and libido and energy, and often renders a person hopeless about the future.

 Fortunately, we have discovered what causes most all depressions and, more important, what to do to help people be rid of them. In a nutshell, we have learned that, with an exception here and there because of a chemical in-balance, depression is caused by chronic, negative, irrational thinking, not by the setbacks, losses, or failures experienced in life.

This can be communicated in a simple ABC model. A represents the adversity one faces in life, whether it be some personal failure or some adversity that happens outside of one's own doing. B stands for the meaning assigned to the A — the way one thinks about, judges, or even evaluates the adversity. Depending on the B, the person then reacts emotionally at C.

The important point to be made here is to understand that we do not “get depressed,” as in we get the flu by virtue of bacteria invading our body. Rather, we make ourselves depressed by the way we think at B about the A, not the A itself.

If you think about it, that is really good news. By taking responsibility for causing our own depression, we have the power to identify our irrational, depression-making B's, rid ourselves of them, and replace them with more realistic, rational thought patterns that will alleviate our depression. And, that's exactly what I do with my patients in my office — teach them the ABC model; help them take responsibility for bringing on their depression without blaming themselves; guide them through the process of identifying and destroying their depression-making thinking; and help them ingrain new, healthy beliefs. Whenever a patient avidly works with me, this person always gets better.

Last month, I wrote about one of the two major types of depression, Self-Damning Depression. I encourage you to go back and digest this blog. In this blog, I discuss the second kind of depression, Catastrophizing Depression. Please use what I share to your advantage.

Catastrophizing Depression

Catastrophizing depression comes about when a person experiences some hardship in his or her life and ends up thinking: This is so awful, horrible, or terrible that I can't bear it! Life will never, ever be good again! What's the point! Thinking, and believing, these ways, how could a person react with anything but depression, regardless of the degree of badness, was the event that tripped off this thinking?

A first example that comes to my mind is Sara, a 55-year-old depressed woman going through a prolonged, contentious divorce, one in which her lawyer insisted she curtail her active social life. Her catastrophizing thinking: “This is what my life will be forever. What a horrible way to live. What's the point?”

Then there was Mitch, a small business owner struggling with a multitude of business hassles, as well as the usual annoyances of everyday life. His depressive catastrophizing: “This crap is horrible. I shouldn't have to put up with it. I just wish I could go to sleep and never wake up.”

A final example I'll share is the case of an 18-year-old first semester college student, Skip, who became depressed in the midst of his heavy workload. His catastrophizing depressive thinking: “School is ruining my life. I hate it. Why bother even getting up in the morning. It'll just be the same today as it was yesterday.”

These three people illustrate perfectly the ABCs of Catastrophizing Depression.

1. At A, the Activating Event, they each encountered a significant hardship in their life. Sara struggled through a difficult divorce, Mitch experienced ongoing hardships with his business, and Skip faced the shocking realities of college life.

2. Then, at B, they all catastrophized about their adversities, each thinking along the following lines:

Awfulizing: “It is awful, horrible, or terrible to have to go through this.”

I can't stand-it-itis: “This hardship is so horrible that I can't bear it.”

Forever: “This hardship is not only terrible today, but I will have to endure it             endlessly into the future.”

Protesting: “It shouldn't be this way. I shouldn't have to deal with this.”

Notice that the three people referenced above did not directly voice all four of these sentiments. But, if you read between the lines, they nevertheless asserted all of these catastrophizing themes by implication.

3. Finally, with this kind of thinking at B, these three individuals brought on their own depression at C. How could they not? To think so dire would cause a horse to be depressed.

Before reading on, you might want to pause a few minutes and reflect on your own thinking patterns. Particularly if you're depressed, do you catastrophize, that is, think that your hardships and hassles are awful, that you find them unbearable, that things are hopeless, and/or that you shouldn't have to face these adversities? If you do, don’t you see that your depression comes from your catastrophic thinking?

If you fall into the habit of making yourself depressed by thinking along these lines, don't be discouraged. It's only a bad habit you have, not an incurable illness or a fatal weakness. It can be fixed. You can re-indoctrinate your thinking. Read on.

Ridding Catastrophizing Depression

As with Self-Damning Depression, there are two major strategies to help you rid yourself of Catastrophizing Depression. I promise that if you avidly and forcefully work on this for a couple of months, you will change your thinking and eliminate your depression.

1. Debunking Catastrophizing Thinking. With this strategy, you hold your catastrophic thinking up as a hypothesis, not a gospel truth, and critically assault it with logic and evidence. By doing this, you will see over and over how absurd it is to think this way. Then you will finally get it, so that catastrophizing no longer has a grip on you.

Look at the three primary debunking questions and see how Mitch handled them.

Question 1: Is it really true or valid that the hassles I have amount to horrors, that I should be exempt from life's hardships, and that they last forever?

Answer 1: Of course my hassles are not horrors. My wife and son being murdered may be a horror, but not this. These are just hassles. On a scale from 1 to 100, losing my family would easily be in the 90s; when I think objectively about them, these things are only in single digits. Furthermore, everybody has to deal with hassles. Why should I be exempt? The bottom line is that I have dealt with these hassles each and every time I’ve faced them. Even though I don't like them, I can deal with them in the future.

Question 2: Does thinking in this catastrophizing way help me or harm me?

Answer 2: No question but that it harms me. Not only do I have to deal with the dreck of my life, but I end up feeling depressed about them to boot. How silly of me, going bargain basement shopping, two for the price of one. Then, when depressed, I laze around, don't deal with the problems, and mope. So, they sit there and get worse and worse, leading me to continue to catastrophize and get more depressed, a downward-spiraling vicious circle for sure.

Question 3: What would be a better way to think that would get rid of my depression and open the door to problem solving?

Answer 3: I sure don't like to deal with the problems at work, but they're part of running a business. They're just hassles, not horrors, and I'm not a special case in the universe such that I shouldn't have to face what everybody else does. So, quit whining and get to work solving these hassles.

After Mitch asked and answered these questions each and every day for over a month, he sat in my office and reported: “Doc, I feel so much better. I pull out the questions whenever there's a problem. I not only prevent myself from falling into the catastrophizing trap, but I hop right on problem-solving right away. Life feels so much better.”

Notice, dear reader, that Mitch’s A's didn't change. But, his B’s sure did, and thus his C’s. If Mitch can do it, so can you.

The Six and The Five. While debunking is designed to rip the catastrophizing thinking to shreds, this technique has the purpose of habituating anti-catastrophizing thinking.

What you want to do is to take five minutes six times a day (breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, mid-afternoon, supper, and mid-evening) and do the following imagery exercise.

  1. Picture the A. For example, Mitch would picture some typical work hardship or hassle.
  2. Rehearse the rational B. Forcefully picture yourself thinking the rational thoughts. Mitch would go over, for example, his answer to Question 3, above.
  3. Picture calmness at C. Mitch would envision himself gracefully accepting the reality of the hardship he faced and, without depression, launching into problem solving.

These two strategies — Debunking catastrophizing thinking and The Six and The Five — work in tandem. One tears down the negative, the other builds the positive. I've yet to see in my 35 years of clinical practice anyone not get over their depression when they devote time and energy to doing these two practices.

Going Forward

As with all my other blogs, I post this one with the intention of offering useful ideas and strategies to help you create a healthy, happy life. If I've helped even one of you, I feel the time and energy I've spent is worth it.

Till next month, live healthy, happy, and with passion.

Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. The author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live, he invites you to check out his new relationship happiness book, The Couples Therapy Companion; A Cognitive Behavior Workbook. You may contact Dr. Grieger for questions or for more information at