If you’ve ever found yourself worrying endlessly about worst-case scenarios seemingly out of nowhere, you’re not alone.
Do any of the following sound familiar?
“I don’t know if I did well on that test… I’m never going to graduate from college, how will I get a job?”
“I made a small mistake at work, and even though I was able to fix it and they said it was fine, I think my boss will fire me.”
“My husband is late on his way home, so he must have been horribly injured in a car crash.”
For people with anxiety, thoughts like these may not be completely uncommon. When your anxiety meets an impressive imagination, catastrophic thinking can occur.
Catastrophic thinking is caused by anxiety, but it can also feed into the anxiety too, making your symptoms much worse.
In this post, we’re going to go over what catastrophic thinking is, why it happens, how to recognize it, and what you can do to keep it from taking over.
What Is Catastrophic Thinking Exactly?
Catastrophic thinking is an anxious behavior that results in us immediately asking ourselves “what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen” and then worrying that it will come to pass. In many cases, this is a subconscious train of thought; we don’t realize we’re reaching for unlikely worse case scenarios, and instead can dwell on them.
Let’s look at an example. Say that your spouse is late coming home from work. You don’t automatically say to yourself “Well he had a big project, he probably got distracted. He’s only fifteen minutes late.” Instead, your heart starts to race, and you wonder “but what if he did get in a car crash and no one has called me yet? When would someone call me?”
Catastrophic thinking can be a symptom of generalized anxiety or other anxiety disorders, but it also contributes to it. You’re feeding into the anxiety instead of learning how to manage it, which can trigger unhealthy behavior patterns that keep you stuck.
What Causes Catastrophic Thinking
The causes of catastrophic thinking can depend on the person, but the basic answer is often some sort of anxiety-related condition. This may include Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which can cause obtrusive worrying about worst-case scenarios.
That being said, there are two common reasons that we end up going down the catastrophic thinking rabbit hole:
- We try to “logic” our way out of anxious feelings that we have. This is particularly common in individuals with high-achieving, high-functioning anxiety. They’re trying to address the symptom of an anxiety attack by reasoning their way out of it, thinking “well how bad can it really get?” They may do this to calm themselves, or to tell themselves if they know the worst-case scenario then they can prepare. Then, however, they manage to come up with the absolute worst-case scenario, which does nothing to help their anxiety.
- We have a deep-seated fear of failure that pops up. We might fear specific types of failure or loss, like the loss of a family member or failure causing us to get fired. If something triggers that fear, like a mistake at work, it can trigger worst-case scenario thinking.
How to Recognize Catastrophic Thinking
Catastrophic thinking can be difficult to recognize until you have a name for it.
When you’re experiencing anxiety, after all, catastrophic thoughts can seem like they’re ever-present and impending realities. In order to combat catastrophic thinking and to keep it in check, however, it’s helpful to recognize the thoughts for what they are.
These tips can typically help you do exactly that:
- Look for what-if statements. If you find yourself thinking along the lines of “what if I get fired and lose my house and become homeless,” or “what if my head cold is actually a brain tumor and I die,” notice that they’re starting with what if. What-if statements can often lead to catastrophic thinking, so if that’s how the thought starts, flag it.
- Think about realistic and statistically probable outcomes. Unless your boss has a penchant for firing people over minor mistakes, for example, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d be fired for arriving late to one meeting or forgetting to respond to one email. If your coworker made the same mistake, would you assume they’d be fired? Probably not, and you’d probably think they were silly for worrying they would be.
- Consider the positive. Catastrophic thinking is literally all about focusing on the worst-case scenarios you can come up with. This leaves no room for the positive. If you aren’t even able to consider positive alternatives, that could indicate you’re stuck in a catastrophic thinking loop.
- Look for irrationality. Would you think it’s irrational if a friend brought you the same concerns that you’re worried about? And have you worried about this exact scenario before?
- Overthinking. If you find yourself trying to desperately prepare for how you’ll handle one of these ultimately bad worst-case scenarios and struggling to stop thinking about it, that’s overthinking. This can be a classic sign of anxiety-driven catastrophic thinking.
How to Stop Catastrophic Thinking
There are three steps you can and should take to stop catastrophic thinking in its tracks.
- Recognize it for what it is. We looked at how to do this in the section above. If you’re unsure if you’re experiencing catastrophic thinking or not, an anxiety coach can help you look at your thought patterns to decipher catastrophic thinking.
- Focus on the positive. Intentionally think about more realistic or even best-case scenarios. Maybe instead of firing you, your boss will like that you took accountability for a mistake and worked to rectify it quickly, and they’ll respect you more.
- Stop dwelling. Racing and obsessive thoughts are no good, and you don’t want to feed the anxiety until it becomes overwhelming. If there’s nothing you can do about your current situation, trying to think your way out of it won’t help. Let yourself worry for a moment, and then move on with something distracting. Mindfulness can be particularly useful here.
Catastrophic thinking is nothing to be ashamed of; in some families, it’s even normalized. One client I worked with years ago would never talk on the phone if anyone in the family was out, in case they got into an accident and tried to call. Because that’s how she was raised. When catastrophic thinking is normalized (either through external forces like family or internally through your own consistent though behaviors), it can be difficult to identify and tackle.
Group accountability can be particularly beneficial here. You can talk to members of your group who have experienced anxiety themselves and who will offer positive, nonjudgmental feedback. An anxiety coach can also be key, helping you assess what’s rational and what’s irrational, giving you support and helping you to learn other resilience and management skills.
My Ditch Anxiety & Be Resilient group is specifically geared towards this purpose, offering private groups of 4-8 women who are working together to learn how to manage their anxiety successfully. You can learn more about my group coaching and other services here.
Catastrophic thinking can run away with your anxiety until you put a stop to it. Book a consultation today to learn more about how we can stop it in its tracks.