Ryan Martin Ph.D.

All the Rage

What Is Catastrophizing?

Why it is the worst thing you could ever do.

Posted Jul 03, 2019

Have you ever been disappointed by something—maybe even something relatively minor—and said to yourself, “Great, now the entire day is ruined”? 

If you have, and most people have, you were likely catastrophizing. It’s one of the five primary types of thoughts related to anger, and I’m going to cover each of these five thought types in separate posts over the next few months, starting today.

Before I get into it, though, here’s a quick reminder about why these thoughts are important. I have written before about why people get mad. If you read that piece you know that one of the most critical elements of an angering event is how we appraise or evaluate the situation. When something happens to us, we quickly decide if it is bad, unfair, blameworthy, punishable, etc. Once we have done that, we decide how bad it is. For example, if you are on your way to work and are slowed down by traffic, you might evaluate that situation as bad. You might even blame the other drivers or the weather for the traffic. But if you decide being slowed down is not that big a deal, you probably won’t get very angry about it. There is a big difference between "This traffic is frustrating” and “This traffic is going to ruin my entire day!”

This brings us to catastrophizing, which can be summed up pretty well by the name. It is when we blow things out of proportion. We evaluate events in highly negative ways and/or decide that we simply cannot cope with them. Instead of saying to ourselves, “This is disappointing," we say, "This is the worst.” Instead of saying, “I wish I didn’t have to deal with this," we say, “I’m not going to be able to deal with this.” 

The research we have done on catastrophizing shows that it is linked to a host of negative outcomes (Martin & Dahlen, 2007; 2011; Martin & Vieaux, 2013). It is correlated with a tendency to get angry, to express that anger in maladaptive ways, to have thoughts of revenge, to get into fights, to damage property, and quite a few other anger related problems. It is also related, not surprisingly, to anxiety and depression (i.e., If you exaggerate the consequences of the negative things that happen to you, you are likely to get sad, scared, and angry).

So what can you do about it? Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Think through the true consequences of the event. It can be helpful to think through the actual outcome of this thing that has happened. The train that stopped you will probably lengthen your commute by 10 minutes.The slow line you got in at the grocery store will likely add five minutes to your errand. What will the actual consequences of these delays be to your life? They might be significantly disruptive, in which case maybe you want to use that time to problem solve. Chances are, though, they are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.
  2. Identify the catastrophic thought and replace it with a more realistic thought. As soon as you realize you are catastrophizing (and it can take some time), label the thought as catastrophizing, and come up with an alternative that might better reflect what is really going on. So instead of saying, "This weather has ruined my day," try, “I’m disappointed that I can’t do what I wanted to do today.” 
  3. Do not minimize the consequences either. I’ve heard plenty of people describe something really disappointing and then say, “but it’s fine.” If it is not fine, do not try to pretend it is fine. That is not healthy either. Things do not have to be all good or all bad (that is “dichotomous thinking” and it is a topic for a future post). Things can be moderately bad, and when they are moderately bad, it is good to acknowledge that too. The goal should be a realistic sense of the consequences of events and not simply to pretend everything that happens is positive or okay.
  4. Know that it takes time and practice to get good at this. It is hard to catch yourself in the moment and stop yourself from catastrophizing. It takes practice and time to get good at it. We have spent a lifetime developing our emotional habits, so undoing them requires work and time. In the beginning, you may not realize until the end of the day that you were catastrophizing, but if you keep working on it and reflecting on your thoughts and feelings, you will start to catch yourself more quickly and in the moment.

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Martin, R. C., & Dahlen, E. R. (2007). The Angry Cognitions Scale: A new inventory for assessing cognitions in anger. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 25, 155-173.

Martin, R. C., & Dahlen, E. R., (2011). Angry thoughts and response to provocation: Validity of the Angry Cognitions Scale. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 29, 65-76.

Martin, R. C., Vieaux, L. E. (2013). Angry thoughts and daily emotion logs: Validity of the Angry Cognitions Scale. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 29, 65-76.