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What is Catastrophizing? Cognitive Distortions

Learn the definition of catastrophizing and how to overcome it.

Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion that has been extensively studied in psychology.

What is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing has two parts:

  1. Predicting a negative outcome.
  2. Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.


  1. Student worries they will fail an exam.
  2. Student jumps to the conclusion that failing an exam would be a catastrophe. They imagine that if they were to fail an exam, it would mean they would never be a success in their life.

The counterevidence to this fallacy is that many people who are eventually successful have failed an exam before. Plus, many types of important exams even offer multiple opportunities to sit them.

3 Psychological Mechanisms related to Catastrophizing

Psychological research on chronic pain and catastrophizing has uncovered three types of mechanisms related to catastrophizing

  • Rumination
  • Magnification
  • Helplessness

How to Overcome Catastrophizing

1. Mindful awareness

You have to catch yourself having cognitive distortions to be able to do anything about them,

2. Consider Other Possible Outcomes

Consider positive predictions, neutral predictions, and mildly negative predictions, not just very negative predictions.

3. Make a Distinction Between "Significantly Unpleasant" and "Catastrophe"
The key to overcoming catastrophizing is making a distinction between something being significantly unpleasant and it being a catastrophe. Failing an important exam would be extremely distressing but it does not doom the individual to a life of failure.

4. Increase your perception of your ability to cope.

If you believe you can cope with negative events, anxiety will be much less of a problem for you.

Types of Catastrophizing

The common types of catastrophes people tend to imagine include:

  • Imagining yourself losing control. For example, an individual with panic disorder predicts that if they go to the mall on a weekend afternoon, they will have a panic attack. They predict that having a panic attack would be a catastrophe, rather than it just being significantly unpleasant.
  • Imagining yourself spiraling into a deep depression.
  • Imagining yourself never finding love, and imagining that if this happens you will be plagued by intense feelings of loneliness 24/7 from now until you die.
  • Equating some type of mild to moderate social rejection with being totally shunned by all desirable people.
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