Cognitive distortion theory is a branch of psychology that deals with the way people think about and interpret situations. It was developed in the 1960s by Dr. Aaron Beck and has been expanded on by other researchers.
Catastrophizing is one of the cognitive distortions that can occur when dealing with a difficult situation. This happens when a person takes an adverse event or situation and blows it out of proportion, imagining all sorts of terrible things that could occur as a result.
Catastrophizing refers to the magnifying events into disasters that cannot be tolerated. For example, suppose you think that something like public speaking will lead to your becoming wholly humiliated and embarrassed. In that case, you are catastrophizing about what is likely to happen. When catastrophizing occurs, you are more likely to become anxious about what is happening or avoid doing things that involve the situation. For example, if you think some mild illness means you will be bedridden for a week and lose your job, then the illness may lead to anxiety and depression.
How to Recognize Catastrophizing In Yourself
Catastrophizing is often related to how you interpret situations. Often, people who catastrophize expect extreme outcomes in a situation when something wrong happens. For example, suppose someone bumps into you in a crowded room and does not apologize. In that case, you might think that they are “intentionally trying to make your life miserable” or that the person is “out to get you.” Catastrophizing often feeds the belief that a situation is horrible and unbearable, leading to feelings of anxiety.
One strategy for dealing with catastrophizing is identifying it when it occurs. You can ask yourself some questions if you think you might be catastrophizing:
(a) What is the worst possible thing that could happen?
(b) How likely is it to actually happen?
By doing this, you can make an objective prediction about what will happen. You may find out that it’s unlikely for something terrible to actually occur, and by realizing this, you’ll feel less anxious.
What does Catastrophizing Look Like?
A person thinking about starting their own business might catastrophize about the potential failure and risk of bankruptcy. Someone making plans with someone they like might catastrophize that if the person doesn’t show up for their date, or if the person cancels, they don’t want them anymore. Someone thinking about asking their boss for a promotion might catastrophize that their boss will say no and that they will be “stuck in this awful job forever.”
Catastrophizing can also occur when someone experiences a traumatic event. For example, a police officer who has witnessed the death of another person might catastrophize that they could have done something to prevent what happened or that it’s their fault. Someone who has experienced a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or an earthquake, might catastrophize that another event like this will occur again and lead to destruction. This is where anxiety is born. We have experienced a bad situation in the past. Our minds allow us to assume events will always be harmful in the future.
In interpersonal relationships, catastrophizing can also take the form of negative beliefs about yourself or someone else. For example, have you ever been left on read? When someone doesn’t respond to a text or a phone call, you might catastrophize that they are angry with you or don’t want to talk to you. Quite simply, the other person may have just been busy. People who have experienced an unfaithful partner may assume future romantic interests are cheating on them when they fail to immediately respond.
How To Handle Catastrophizing
Identify when catastrophizing is occurring: consider asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and “How likely is it to actually happen?” Challenge yourself to come up with an alternative explanation. For example, if you think your partner doesn’t like you because they did not respond immediately after a date, consider asking them why they didn’t reply.
Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation. Sometimes these thoughts can appear when you feel overwhelmed or stressed, and reducing your anxiety will help counteract the thinking style before it spirals into a negative cycle of catastrophizing and further anxiety. Use behavioral experiments to test out the validity of your belief that something terrible will happen. Try doing something, and if the worst possible thing happens, practice accepting it. For example, you can tell yourself that you will be okay if your boss says no to your promotion request.
Change Your Focus
Think about how things could go well instead of focusing on the worst-case scenario. For example, “there’s a chance I might get this promotion, and if not, there are other opportunities out there.” Tell yourself that bad things could happen but that you can cope. For example, “It’s a possibility my boss will say no to my request for a promotion, but if she does, it doesn’t mean I’m going to quit my job.
Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep, do things you enjoy, and learn how to be resilient. If something wrong happens, have an optimistic approach. Try to look at the situation from other perspectives or find the silver lining. Make time for activities that are meaningful to you. It is important to remember that although catastrophizing can feel like it is helping you cope with difficult situations, it isn’t. Try to find more effective coping strategies by speaking to a therapist or taking up mindfulness meditation if the issue persists.
It is normal to think catastrophically in certain situations. Still, suppose your negative thinking is so overwhelming that it interferes with your daily life and makes you unable to manage the situation effectively on your own. In that case, it is time to seek professional help.
Cognitive restructuring is an effective way to change your thinking style and reduce anxiety while catastrophizing. As we mentioned above, it makes anxiety worse and does not allow you to find solutions to the problem at hand.
Many cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can help you manage your negative thoughts and catastrophizing. Still, it is essential to know that the effects of therapy are long-lasting. This is because it changes how you think, not just how you act.
For some, catastrophizing is a common and normal thought process. But for others, it can be so overwhelming that they cannot manage the situation at hand on their own. If you find yourself in this position, then seek professional help as soon as possible with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques such as Cognitive Restructuring or Mindfulness Meditation. These will allow you to change your thinking style and reduce anxiety while also providing long-lasting effects because of how these therapies work, changing not just how you act but how you think about things too!