Catastrophizing: a glass half-empty, about to explode

Are you one of those people who constantly believes that the world is about to end? This is called catastrophizing. It is a coping strategy in which one overemphasizes and overstates the possible negative consequences of a present- or future situation.

In other words, you systematically focus on the worst possible scenario whenever anything is about to happen. Catastrophizing is a type of cognitive pattern, although of course, it also has emotional, somatic and behavioral components.

Everyone experiences an episode of catastrophizing at some point. After all, we are human beings – not superheroes – and we are not always operating as completely rational robots at optimal levels of maturity and bravery. However, some people succumb to catastrophizing more quickly than others, sometimes in a very dramatic way. These people have made catastrophizing one of the pillars of their coping methods and have slowly become victims of their own anticipatory fear.

Catastrophizing: a glass half-empty, about to explode

This can be attributed to a number of different factors. In some cases, their base-levels of anxiety are higher and thus, their fear responses are activated more easily. Perhaps they have had negative or traumatic experiences in the past that have instilled an excessive fear of the future in them; perhaps that is why they see the future in a very skewed way: the bottle is always half empty for them. In some cases these people have been taught to believe that life is unjust and terrible and that the best thing is to always think negatively as if despair, panic or distrust of the future were the best way to prepare for it.

As you can see, the reasons for catastrophizing are very diverse. Actually, what is most clear are the consequences of functioning in this way: it adds unnecessary suffering (in the form of discouragement, obsessive ruminations, physiological activation) to an already difficult situation and triggers experiential avoidance, the restriction of our behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Remember that fear, in this case in the form of intense pessimism, can make you feel paralyzed or make you want to flee, but it isn’t helping you to grow as a person.

Catastrophizing: a glass half-empty, about to explode

We can pinpoint a few breeding grounds for this type of thinking in our day-to-day life. Health is one example.

Think about a hypochondriac: every time he has a little cold, he suffers because he believes he has a serious autoimmune disease. If he sprains his ankle, he can’t sleep because he lies awake thinking that he will never recover and that nobody will ever truly love him because of his lingering limp. Others will feel guilty for sun-bathing one day at the beach, fearing that they have just advanced ten kilometers on their inevitable path to skin cancer. People like this immediately worry that they will inevitably get diabetes because they ate too many scones in one week. Needless to say, someone with nosophobia (the fear of getting an infection, especially a sexually-transmitted one) will tend to think that the slightest itch after a sexual encounter means that they have contracted a serious infection and will suffer in every relationship because of this fear.

Relationships are other places in which it’s easy to spot this pattern of thought. Since one or two relationships failed, nobody will ever want to be in a long-term relationship with me. Does this thought pattern sound familiar to you?

The catastrophizing does not end here. If I go to an exotic foreign country, I will panic about the possibility of a natural disaster. If my boss calls me into his office, I’ll think he has something serious and bad to say to me. If I see a group of people whispering and, coincidentally, I think I hear my name, I’ll think that they’re gossiping about me … and that I’ll end up condemned to social death.

As you can see, explosive pessimism can be manifested in many forms, and that’s why it is so important to detect it and progressively redirect it when it happens to us. It is true that sometimes it seems inevitable to think in a catastrophic way, but in reality it only seems inevitable because it is a mental habit that you have trained. However, the good news is that it is absolutely permutable.  


Catastrophizing: a glass half-empty, about to explode

Catastrophic thinking is quite prevalent in the therapy-seeking population, so psychologists work with their patients a lot to help them to rework these maladaptive thoughts. For this reason, part of our job focuses on helping you master a technique that you might have already heard about: cognitive restructuring.

Basically, cognitive restructuring consists of helping people pinpoint their distorted beliefs, those that really do not conform to reality. Together with your therapist, you will identify at when and why in your life you started to succumb to these types of thought patterns. Next, your psychologist will work with you to think about the ways in which catastrophizing has negatively impacted your life. Finally, you will look for an alternative way of thinking that helps you to have a more rational and positive perspective on life, without going so far as to romanticize reality.

The objective of cognitive restructuring isn’t to completely transform your thought patterns and beliefs, but rather to generate meaningful inner change and foster a more realistic view of the present and future. Through this process, it’s easier to move from inhibition and avoidance to a more fluid, positive and confident exploration of the different opportunities available to you in your life.

  • online therapy ifeel
  • We think these articles may interest you