Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Catastrophizing: Why We Proclaim Our Worst Fears

Understanding anxiety means recognizing both psychological and social factors.

Key points

  • Catastrophizing is a form of identity maintenance, a way of preparing and guarding the self.
  • Typically, it is more than private obsession; it is communication directed to others.
  • Private rationalizations support catastrophizing; so also do alliances with sympathetic others.

My father—may he rest in peace—tended to catastrophize. For psychologists, catastrophizing is the act of fixating on the worst possible outcome in a situation, even when that outcome is extremely unlikely. Getting the person to release that negative vision is difficult indeed.

Some examples: When my sibling and his wife separated, my father tried to telephone him. Getting no answer, he convinced himself that his child had committed suicide. (This wasn’t the case; he had gone out with friends). Another brother, then a teenager, wanted to take a long bike ride with a pal. He was permitted to go but told to take good identification so authorities would know where “to return the body.” (He decided not to go.) A sister, also high-school-aged, wished to travel to Florida with a group for spring break. Learning that boys would be part of the group, my father nixed the idea. The words “sex” and “pregnancy” were used. (My sister grumbles to this day.) At my own wedding, my father sat in the last row rather than the first of the chapel because he was so “unsure” about the affair. (We’ve been married more than 50 years.)

Although these examples make my father sound stern and constricting, that isn’t the case. He was a thoughtful, charismatic, kindly man, and we all loved him dearly. However, he suffered from what society today recognizes as depression and anxiety. His worries could engulf him.

For the most part, we children accepted his anxieties and declarations as normal conditions in our family’s little world. We worked around them to the extent we could, telling him certain things and withholding others. I submit that most of us have these quirks of personality that our loved ones recognize, manage, and endure.

Some causes of catastrophism, like those afflicting my father, require the attention of professional therapists. Many of the rest of us experience this condition more intermittently. We toss and turn at night worrying about the terrible things that might occur. Awakening, we find ourselves still unable to address those worries productively.

Psychologists studying this topic emphasize techniques to control our negative thought spirals. We are told to acknowledge that “bad things” do happen but to inquire into their likelihood. We should make ourselves consider the variety of outcomes in a situation, not just the one that depresses us. We should “stay specific” and try to avoid generalizing and exaggerating. We should stay in the present as much as possible and avoid dramatic leaps into the future and past. Sometimes, we should just tell ourselves to “stop.” We should exercise and sleep and otherwise attend to our body’s needs.

Why We Catastrophize

For the most part, catastrophizing is an obsessional disorder, a wailing about powerful images that hold us in their spell. However, it’s important to note there are reasons we do this, most of which are strategies of self-defense or protection.

By preparing ourselves for the worst, even if this is some far-fetched fantasy, we ready our psyche for the shock that is to come. When those negative expectations aren’t fulfilled, we experience the outcome as very mild satisfaction, a win of sorts. When they do happen—perhaps the dreaded fourth-quarter collapse of our favorite sports team—we’ve already “gone public” with our prediction and the requisite emotions.

Dire predictions are mostly just that, warnings to anyone who will listen. But sometimes we use our worst fears to organize responses. Many worry that they will lose their job or flunk out of school. At worst, they subsequently commit reckless behaviors that make these events occur. At best, they plan coherent responses or even exit strategies. Maybe “that” job or school isn’t the best circumstance.

Most things we do connect to our understanding of our own identity. Worrying and complaining are, at one level, ways of drawing attention to the self—and asking for support. Indeed, who of us doesn’t play the “sick role,” at least from time to time, for just this reason?

Catastrophizing is also a pattern of defining oneself as a person of a certain sort. My father always said he felt things more deeply than others (perhaps he did). A learned person, he also felt he had special insights regarding the causes and consequences of things. Some people can foretell the distant storm; others focus only on the sunny present. Being “sensitive” in this way sometimes means having an elaborate set of rationalizations. Such individuals are, as a psychologist friend puts it, “well-defended,” and they take pride in that fortress.

Obsession is also a type of distraction. By focusing on a certain event—perhaps a nuclear confrontation with Russia or China—one worries less (or at least, less consciously) about more practical, proximate matters. If Armageddon is at hand, why address communication problems with your spouse, Mother’s health, or just the leaky pipe in the basement? Pointedly, obsession is a way of withdrawing as much as it is of engaging.

Be very clear that what we obsess about matters. My father’s obsessions—and all my examples above—centered on things that might happen to his family. He also worried constantly about the state of the world (a pessimism that students taking his college courses would tease him about). I don’t remember his ever catastrophizing about his own health. This is remarkable because he had a progressive illness that caused him to lose many of his functions over the years and that led ultimately to his death. All this fits the theme that catastrophizers worry loudly about certain issues and keep others—perhaps deeper concerns—tightly guarded.

Worrying as a Social Phenomenon

Psychologists focus on what individuals think, feel, and do—and how they can better those processes. But all behaviors are marked strongly by social and cultural patterns. Catastrophizing is no different.

We tend to think of catastrophizers as lonely malcontents, but typically they issue their warnings to others. Ideally, they receive support from those people (“Yes, you’ve got me thinking.”). If the worst does occur, they want to be remembered as someone who was “ahead of the curve,” who predicted events as they transpired.

More generally, the prognosticator wishes to establish bonds with like-minded individuals. What if a group developed around the concern at hand (for example, that medical vaccinations are extremely dangerous to children)? That might lead to meetings that share information and plan strategies. Informal ties, including friendships, might develop. The group might formalize and spread its influence. Leadership positions and other recognitions might be in the offing.

A mixed blessing of our Internet culture is that it quickly gathers people with certain interests and beliefs, however outlandish these may be. It gives individuals feelings of involvement—and the chance to say their piece—without the usual repercussions of face-to-face encounters. Indeed, most would acknowledge that the partial or masked character of online identity is easier to manage than the public identity of normal relations. Users connect and disconnect, offer and withhold as they please. Whatever the implications of this, it is exhilarating to find comrades (however distant) who share, and even amplify, one’s beliefs.

What happens to groups when their direst predictions—perhaps the end of civilization—fail to occur? As Leon Festinger and his colleagues argued in a classic book, the failure of prophecy leads to “cognitive dissonance,” the misalignment of cherished beliefs. That said, humans are far too ingenious to be trapped long by their own logic. Just because a predicted event didn’t occur on time doesn’t mean it won’t occur. A divorce that happens 20 years later is still a divorce. The same can be said for a heart attack “waiting to happen.”

Acknowledge, too, that people are fully capable of altering their definition of end-states. Perhaps the phrase “end of civilization” means something different than what we originally thought. Regardless, the point is to be on the right side of history, to be calling attention to the right kinds of concerns. The art of prophecy is to have quite general goals that can be modified as conditions change.

Yes, we can all become drama queens and kings who fill the air with our warnings and denunciations. The challenge is to understand what internal factors motivate these outbursts and what role other people play in their production.


Boardman, S. (2023). “A Cure for Catastrophizing.” Psychology Today. (Posted March 2, 2023).

Festinger, L, H. Riecken, and S. Schachter (1956) When Prophecy Fails. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Martin, R. (2019). “What is Catastrophizing?” Psychology Today. (Posted July 3, 2019).

More from Thomas Henricks Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today