“Don’t even talk to me! Nothing is ever going to go right for me!” “Nothing is ever going to work out for me!”
“Why can’t things smooth out for me? Things aren’t fair. It’s all so hard!”
Do these sound familiar? While stressful and upsetting, the abovementioned thoughts are self-talk related to catastrophizing. Sometimes life comes crashing down, whether we are ambushed with work, school, or social obligations. Suddenly, problems seem hard to handle, and we get burnt out and overwhelmed. But how can we tell if we’re catastrophizing? And what causes it in the first place? How can we stop feeling overwhelmed?
What is catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is a type of cognitive distortion where one takes a negative situation and imagines the worst-case scenario. It is an exaggerated response with unrealistic expectations, usually driven by the need to control the outcomes of cases or events. This phenomenon happens to everyone; however, some people create these imaginary scenarios repetitively, disrupting their mental health and wellness.
The connotation around catastrophizing is not meant to invalidate feelings and perceptions. It is a phenomenon that all humans share, experience, and should discuss. In this blog, we aim to deconstruct the signs of catastrophizing and present ways to better deal with them.
Signs and Symptoms of Catastrophizing
Is catastrophizing taking control of your thought patterns? Several signs indicate one’s tendency for catastrophizing, including the following:
1. Feeling like something will go wrong.
This is a classic sign of catastrophizing. No matter the time of day or the circumstance, you always think something could go wrong. You start to stress out over the small things and worry about making a mistake—all to ensure that nothing goes awry. But even if you have done everything right, you still get a gnawing feeling that things will go downhill at some point. When things finally go sour, you feel a short-lived relief before the cycle painfully continues.
2. Focusing on how something could negatively affect you.
Worst-case scenarios can plague people who suffer from catastrophizing thoughts. They believe in the worst perceptions they have of themselves. These could be thoughts such as:
- No one will ever love me.
- I will never be good enough.
- Everyone is looking at me in a bad way.
- I can never recover from this situation.
Once they get into this line of thought, they could immediately spiral and avoid doing certain things, such as skipping an exam or declining an event to keep themselves safe.
3. Turning good news into something negative.
Catastrophizing can happen suddenly, overshadowing moments that should have been celebrated. Winning a contest might bring intense pressure to do even better the next time. Getting promoted at a job might push you to spiral if you feel like you don’t deserve it. These thoughts eat away at your special moments, causing you to be incapable of enjoying victories.
On a somber note, catastrophizing was found to be a precursor to conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Catastrophizing signs are concurrent with conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression, but they cannot be considered mental health issues alone. To prevent the more detrimental effects of catastrophizing, it is helpful to thoroughly understand the signs we outlined above. The more you know about them, the more you notice them as they happen, and the sooner you can stop them from escalating in your mind. It’s never too early to seek professional help. The sooner you get support when you notice signs of catastrophizing, the better you can mitigate and even conquer its effects. The following section will share some ways to prevent catastrophizing behaviors.
Ways To Counter Catastrophizing Thoughts
It can be hard to break out of the habit of catastrophizing. But starting with a shift in mindset and consistently practicing the following tips can help:
1. Practice self-compassion.
Being kind to oneself is underrated. Many factors leave individuals vulnerable to catastrophizing. An unstable childhood, hostile environment, and traumatic experiences may cause it. It can also be a genetic trait that one is born with. These factors often push one’s self-perception down.
The good news is that self-compassion can be learned and nurtured. If you have difficulty with it, a good exercise is finding a picture of you as a child, putting it somewhere you can easily see, and relaying a daily message of encouragement to your younger self. Acknowledge your good qualities and accomplishments. Combating negative internal dialogue takes time and practice to start turning the tide.
2. Optimize for flow in your life.
Being in a state of flow enables us to break through negative thought cycles and perform at our best. People with the most flow have the highest sense of life purpose and vitality, making them more productive. Flow is also instrumental in keeping us focused on a task rather than fixating on how things could go wrong.
Several activities can induce flow. It can be as simple as taking a walk in nature or as complex as playing an instrument. Try new things and discover what works best for you. Understandably, you might be gripped by fear when you first start. So take it slow, and ask for help when possible.
3. Practice mindfulness.
When you are in the throes of catastrophizing, it may feel like you are drowning. It can be a very uncomfortable experience. But there is hope. One way to emerge from a spiraling episode is to focus on the present. Catastrophizing is a byproduct of hyper fixation on the past or future. So, make sure to anchor yourself in the here and now once in a while.
Follow a consistent mindfulness and wellness practice that includes rest, recovery, and gratitude for the big and small things in your life. Gaining an appreciation for something we take for granted—like a simple glass of water—can put your life into perspective, knowing that many in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. Feelings of gratitude release dopamine and serotonin into our brains, helping us feel better.
Spiraling can also happen when our thoughts slip out of our control. You might be thinking through things too fast, too pessimistically. Remember to slow down. You can try breathing exercises. Better yet, you can grab a pen and paper and write! Physically writing your thoughts down gives your mind ample time to process and rationalize your thoughts.
4. Challenge your perfectionism.
Perfectionism is another factor that can contribute to catastrophizing. It often leads to procrastination and distress. Shifting your mindset to “done is better than perfect” can help overcome perfectionist tendencies. Also, reflect on what is driving your need to be perfect. Are you afraid that people might not like it? Do you doubt your skills? Are you scared of putting yourself out there and getting praise?
Often perfectionism is driven by feelings of fear and insecurity. Addressing the root cause of this tendency can help you gain a new perspective and let go.
5. Surround yourself with a strong support system.
Know that you don’t have to carry the world’s weight on your shoulders. No matter how independent you might be, know that everyone needs support from time to time, whether it be from family, friends, or even strangers. Support can come in many forms, sometimes unexpected and without you asking.
Be open to receiving help and view it not as a weakness but as an invitation to let others connect with you on a deeper level. These interactions help everyone involved feel more human and satisfy our deep-seated need for community. Also, you can join a support group for people with the same catastrophizing tendencies and struggles.
6. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
EFT is a self-help technique that involves tapping your fingertips on specific body parts to create a balance in your energy system. Tapping can help when you’re feeling overwhelmed, since it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This signals multiple systems in our body to relax and stay calm. It can also help reduce catastrophizing thoughts by increasing positive emotions. As positivity increases, our unconscious mind decreases our anxiety response. EFT is a method approved by the VA for veterans and special forces for trauma debriefing.
The world is demanding. It can get overwhelming, from work to personal lives to social pressures and social media. Thankfully there are ways to break through the intensity of digital-age stressors. We hope the above-mentioned strategies will encourage you to take the first step to find what works best.