Catastrophizing is when someone assumes that the worst will happen. Often, it involves believing that you’re in a worse situation than you really are or exaggerating the difficulties you face.
For example, someone might worry that they’ll fail an exam. From there, they might assume that failing an exam means they’re a bad student and bound to never pass, get a degree, or find a job. They might conclude that this means they’ll never be financially stable.
Many successful people have failed exams, and failing an exam isn’t proof that you won’t be able to find a job. A person who is catastrophizing might not be able to acknowledge that.
It’s easy to dismiss catastrophizing as over-exaggeration, but it’s often not intentional or that simple. People who do it often don’t realize they’re doing it. They may feel they have no control over their worries, and it can even impact their health. Fortunately, effective treatments exist.
It’s unclear what exactly causes catastrophizing. It could be a coping mechanism learned from family or other important people in a person’s life. It could be a result of an experience, or could be related to brain chemistry.
People who have other conditions such as depression and anxiety, and people who are often fatigued may also be more likely to catastrophize.
The combination of chronic pain and catastrophizing happens often and is widely studied.
Because someone with chronic pain is used to constantly being in pain, they might conclude that they’ll never get better and will always feel discomfort. This fear may lead them to behave certain ways, such as avoiding physical activity, which rather than protecting them, can ultimately make their symptoms worse.
However, this does not mean that chronic pain should not be taken seriously. Catastrophizing isn’t the same as exaggerating about pain. A
Anxiety disorders and depressive disorders
A 2015 study looked at 2,802 teenagers and found that those who tended to catastrophize were more likely to have anxiety disorders.
A 2012 study found that catastrophizing was linked to both anxious and depressive disorders in children, particularly among children in the third grade or younger. Controlling for anxiety, it showed that there was a strong relationship between depression and catastrophizing. The authors concluded that this was because assuming that the worst will always happen leads to feelings of hopelessness. Constantly feeling hopeless can lead to depression.
Since catastrophizing is closely associated with mental illnesses, it’s no surprise that therapy can effectively treat catastrophizing. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most common forms of talk therapy. A
CBT tries to address your thinking and behavioral patterns. In the case of catastrophizing, your therapist might help you recognize irrational thoughts and replace them with rational ones.
For example, you might be used to thinking, “I handed this report in late. I’m a total failure, and I’m going to lose my job. I’ll be financially destitute.” Through CBT, you’ll recognize that this is an irrational thought. Your therapist might help you replace that thought with, “I handed this report in late. If I apologize for it my boss will understand. She won’t fire me for this single mistake. I’ll be okay.”
If you often find yourself catastrophizing, mindfulness may be helpful. It might help you recognize which thoughts are irrational and can help you control your thoughts.
A number of studies have suggested that mindfulness can treat or reduce catastrophizing. A 2017 study on people with fibromyalgia found that mindfulness can help.
If your catastrophizing is linked to another condition, such as depression, your doctor might prescribe medication for that underlying condition. That said, there’s no medicine that specifically treats catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is a symptom of many mental illnesses, and it can affect your quality of life. While it might feel overwhelming, there are many ways to treat catastrophizing. If you think you have a tendency to catastrophize, talk to a psychologist or therapist.