Expert Blogs | Mental Health
How to Stop Catastrophizing
photo negative thinking concept

Last week, I cut my finger while making dinner. I have no idea how it happened. The next day it started hurting more and more and was red and slightly swollen. Immediately my mind imagined the worst: “It’s infected! The infection is going to travel to my bloodstream. I’m going to develop sepsis and wind up in the hospital.”

I was catastrophizing.

All of us jump to the worst-case scenario at times. Our loved one doesn’t text and we fear they were in an accident. We make a mistake at work and worry we’ll be fired. Our partner is unhappy and we think they’re going to leave us. Catastrophizing isn’t all bad. Being able to imagine the worst can help us avoid it, like when I put antibiotic ointment on my cut to avoid a trip to the ER. (So far, so good.)

But catastrophizing can be a real drag, especially when we’re caught in the grip of fearful thoughts and find it hard to break free. If you want to stop catastrophic thinking, these approaches can help (adapted from The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Worry, & Rumination).

  • Recognize when it’s happening. When you’re expecting the worst, call it what it is: “I’m catastrophizing.” Labeling it won’t necessarily make it go away, but it’s the first step in gaining some distance from it. When we know our minds are making up stories, we can start to imagine more realistic outcomes.
  • Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a full, gentle breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Let go of any tension you’re carrying. Scary thoughts trigger our body’s stress response, which in turn makes us feel like danger is imminent. Relaxing the body invites the mind to follow.
  • Answer the scary question. Fearful thoughts often come in the form of “What if ___ happens?” We usually stop there and just think, “Oh no, oh no!” Treat these automatic questions like actual questions. What if there’s been a car accident? What if we develop a blood infection? Ask yourself what would happen next. Because no matter what we’re afraid of, there will always be the next thing to do (unless we’re dead, of course). When we recognize that the thing we’re afraid of isn’t “Game Over,” it starts to look less like a catastrophe.
  • Move around. Fear has a way of closing in around us and making us freeze. As a result, we can feel like a helpless victim, just waiting for disaster to strike. Break out of this paralysis by getting up and moving around. Go downstairs and put in a load of laundry. Take a quick walk around the block. Stand up and stretch. Shake out your arms and legs. Let the body cue the mind to move on.
  • Accept the possibility. Our first impulse when we fear the worst is to resist the possibility that what we’re afraid of could happen. We want to push it away and somehow make sure we avoid it. That resistance actually increases our fear because it creates an impossible challenge: to guarantee that we prevent catastrophe. But we don’t have that kind of power. Instead, we can be open to the possibility that what we fear could happen. It’s possible. And if it were to happen, it would become a problem we’d have to solve.
  • See yourself coping. The real catastrophe we fear isn’t that what we’re afraid of will happen. It’s that we won’t be able to deal with it. We fear that we’ll be overwhelmed and unable to cope. But you are built to solve problems and do hard things. You’re alive because your ancestors were really good at living through challenges -- every single one through the history of life on Earth. And consider the challenges you’ve already made it through in your lifetime. If what you fear were to happen, it would become another problem to tackle, just like all the difficult situations you’ve navigated before.

If you find that your mind is creating disaster scenarios, it’s nothing to feel bad about, even if you know it makes no sense. Your brain is just trying to keep you safe. So say a silent “thank you” to your brain: “I see what you did there, trying to keep me safe and alive.”

Then remember that you don’t have to take everything you think seriously. You might even find some humor in the stories the mind concocts. Acknowledge that the catastrophe is one possible outcome, then come back to what’s real in your life right at this moment. 

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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