Catastrophizing and Decatastrophizing: A PositivePsychology.com Guide

catastrophizing-decatastrophizingIf your imagination has ever run amok, dragging you through a repeat cycle of worst possible scenarios, then you likely understand the concept of ‘catastrophizing.’

This negative mental schema serves to magnify thoughts and situations such that they are blown way out of proportion with reality. This article will discuss what it means to catastrophize, its negative impact on emotional wellbeing, and how to use cognitive restructuring as a way to decatastrophize negative thinking.

Numerous examples are included, along with helpful books and resources from PositivePsychology.com. So, let’s get started on embracing a more positive and realistic mindset that enhances empowerment, self-control, and optimism.

Before you continue, feel free to download these three Positive CBT Exercises. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into Positive CBT and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.

What Is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is a big word for making a mountain out of a molehill.

It’s a cognitive distortion in which a situation is overblown and/or future expectations are considered bleak. Albert Ellis – noted cognitive psychologist specializing in Rational-Emotive Therapy – first coined the term, describing catastrophizing as experiencing “an irrationally negative forecast of future events” (Quartana, Campbell, & Edwards, 2009, p. 745).

Individuals who catastrophize become anxious as they overestimate the probability of a poor outcome. While we all experience disappointments, a catastrophizer might perceive a setback (e.g., failing a test) as the end of the world.

Catastrophizing is not pleasant, as it involves extensive and irrational worry over what might happen in the future. Sometimes individuals catastrophize as a way of protecting themselves from getting hurt. For example, catastrophizers may consciously or unconsciously believe that by only expecting the absolute worst, they will be less hurt or disappointed if things go wrong.

However, like seeing a glass as half empty, the catastrophizer’s viewpoint is pessimistic and uninspiring. Because this type of negativistic thinking reduces a person’s likelihood of taking reasonable and important risks (e.g., looking for a new job, traveling, committing to a partner, etc.), the ultimate outcome of catastrophizing is to shield oneself from some of life’s most meaningful and joyous experiences.

 

15 Examples of Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing ExamplesThe catastrophizing literature is highly skewed toward health-related topics, as catastrophizers often perceive medical concerns and expectations of pain as far worse than reality.

Consequently, catastrophizing exacerbates medical issues through its relationship with increased pain severity and sensitivity, affective distress, and muscle tenderness, as well as poorer treatment outcomes (Edwards, Bingham, Bathon, & Haythornthwaite, 2006).

Other areas where individuals often blow things out of proportion include family, relationships, safety, and vanity – among others.

Here are 15 examples:

  1. Not getting hired following a job interview is expected to result in the inability to attain a job at all, ultimately resulting in poverty and homelessness.

  2. Giving a class presentation is expected to cause embarrassment and failure, leading a student to never show their face at school again.

  3. Receiving a shot from the doctor is expected to be so overwhelming that it will result in fainting.

  4. The end of a romantic relationship is perceived to mean that a person is unlovable.

  5. A parent perceives a child’s skinned knee as suggesting that the playground is a far too dangerous place for the child to play.

  6. A person gets a pimple and believes everyone sees them as ugly.

  7. After breaking their diet for a cookie, a person believes they are a total failure at dieting and destined to be overweight forever.

  8. After experiencing consistent headaches over the course of a week, a person believes they are suffering from a brain tumor.

  9. After a food poisoning incident, a person believes all restaurants are dangerous and associated with terrible health outcomes.

  10. The belief that riding on a boat is dangerous because it is sure to sink, causing all passengers to drown.

  11. A new driver experiences a fender-bender and decides never to drive again because they will always be a terrible driver.

  12. Messing up a special dinner is perceived as indicating that a person is a terrible cook and can’t do anything right.

  13. A jogger trips over a rock and decides they are uncoordinated and that continued running is likely to result in serious injury.

  14. A child watches a scary movie and becomes convinced that it will come true.

  15. After hearing about a shark attack on the other side of the world, a person believes it’s unsafe to set foot in the ocean.

 

Its Role in Anxiety and Depression

While the catastrophizing literature is dominated by medical studies, the concept of catastrophizing was originally introduced by Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Embry (1978) as related to depression and anxiety. Beck et al. posited that individuals who are vulnerable to anxiety experience cognitive distortions in which threats of negative outcomes are overestimated and coping skills for dealing with adversity are underestimated.

Research has supported the ideas of Beck et al., as a catastrophizing cognitive schema has been linked to psychological distress independent of the degree of physical impairment (Severeijns, Vlaeyen, Van den Hout, & Weber, 2001). While worrying does serve an adaptive function – that is, to prepare us for danger – catastrophizing operates at another level.

Since catastrophizing involves ruminating about terrible things that have a low probability of happening, such worry is wasted negative energy that erodes emotional wellbeing.

Not surprisingly, because it basically involves overblown and unrealistic anxiety about future threats, catastrophizing is related to anxiety disorders. For example, inherent in a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder is the tendency to ruminate over ‘what if’ questions, which is a counterproductive endeavor (Hazlett-Stevens & Craske, 2003).

Research indeed supports the relationship between catastrophizing and anxiety disorders, short- and long-term depressive affect, and increased pain and debilitation among those suffering from pain-related conditions (Asmundson, Vlaeyen, & Crombez, 2004; Edwards et al., 2006; Moore, Adams, Ellis, Thibault, & Sullivan, 2016).

 

Catastrophizing among children and teens

Catastrophizing, which may be learned at an early age, has negative implications for both adults and young people. For example, research has indicated that catastrophizing about the consequences of sleeplessness is associated with increased sleep disturbances among children (Gregory, Noone, Eley, & Harvey, 2010).

Sleep-related catastrophizing appears to be common among kids, with Gregory et al. (2010) reporting this behavior among one in four of the children in their sample.

Importantly, the authors also noted that the relationship between catastrophizing and children’s sleep problems was explained by symptoms of depression and anxiety (Gregory et al., 2010). In another study examining catastrophic thinking among kids, a significant link between catastrophizing and depression was found among third-grade children (Noël, Francis, Williams-Outerbridge, & Fung, 2012).

Similarly, in a large sample of adolescents with high anxiety, the roles of catastrophizing and daily hassles in anxiety were examined (Chan, Chan, & Kwok, 2015). The authors reported a significant link between catastrophizing and anxiety. Interestingly, the effect of daily hassles on anxiety was mediated by catastrophizing.

In other words, while experiencing daily hassles was a predictor of increased anxiety, such stressors increased anxiety via the adolescents’ catastrophizing (Chan et al., 2015).

Clearly, investigating a link between catastrophizing and depression and anxiety gets a little messy, as research examining depression requires careful control of anxiety and vice versa.

Additionally, relationships between concepts such as stress and anxiety or depression are often mediated by catastrophic thinking. While more research is sorely needed in catastrophizing and mental health outcomes, extant research suggests that catastrophic thinking enhances depressive and anxious symptomatology among adults, teens, and children.

You largely constructed your depression. It wasn’t given to you. Therefore, you can deconstruct it.

Albert Ellis

 

Decatastrophizing and Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive RestructuringCatastrophizing is not a healthy mindset.

Fortunately, such nonadaptive cognitive schemas may be broken down and modified in a way that is more conducive to positive outcomes (i.e., cognitive restructuring).

Used as part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), cognitive restructuring involves examining one’s thought processes and beliefs about an actual or potential situation. As outlined by Hope, Burns, Hayes, and Warner (2010), cognitive restructuring involves the following four steps:

  1. Identification of dysfunctional automatic thoughts
  2. Identification of cognitive distortions
  3. Disputing automatic thoughts
  4. Creating rational rebuttal to automatic thoughts

Following this approach, a therapist will work with a client to examine dysfunctional appraisals of situations (e.g., “I’m a loser because I didn’t get an ‘A’ on my test.”) and replace them with more functional ones (e.g., “Not getting an ‘A’ on my test is not the end of the world and doesn’t define who I am as a person.”). This process often involves role-playing to simulate situations such that potential threats are viewed as realistic and manageable.

Taking on a more optimistic and less self-deprecating perspective increases empowerment, self-efficacy, and self-worth, which, in turn, enhances positive emotional wellbeing.

Although it’s an important therapeutic tool, anyone may use cognitive restructuring as a way of breaking down catastrophic thinking and building positive appraisals to use instead – decatastrophizing. In doing so, an individual can see the sunny side of life and respond to challenges from a place of power rather than vulnerability.

 

10 Examples of Decatastrophizing

The following table presents 10 situations, along with a catastrophized and decatastrophized appraisal of each of them.

The table illustrates that decatastrophizing is a simple way to change negative appraisals of common events into ones that are healthier and more encouraging.

Catastrophic Appraisal of Event Decatastrophized Appraisal of Event
The break-up of a relationship
There is something seriously wrong with me, and I’ll never find love. The relationship ended because we were not a good match; I will find someone who is a better fit for me in the future.
A medical procedure is needed
I will not wake up from the anesthesia. The risk of complications is extremely low, and I’m healthy. I will be just fine and will feel a lot better as a result of the operation.
A promotion is denied
I’m lousy at my job and will never get ahead in my field. I have many terrific strengths in my job and will work on improving my weaker areas. I have a great chance of getting promoted in the future.
Moving to a new city
I will be lost and alone, with zero friends. The move will be an adventure, and there will be many opportunities to meet new and interesting people. Besides, I’ve made new friends before, and I will do so again.
Divorce
I am a failure and don’t deserve to find the right partner. Getting divorced does not make me a bad person, nor does it mean that I’m unworthy of love.
Holiday work party
I am terrible at small talk and will look like a fool. I’ve done fine in social gatherings before. And, even if I feel uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean I will look foolish.
Skin break-out
I am ugly and always will be. Everyone experiences break-outs from time to time; they are not permanent. Besides, my oily skin may mean I will have fewer wrinkles in the future.
Child is leaving for college
I will be alone and lonely for the rest of my life. I have my friends and family to keep me company, and my child will be home often. Plus, the house will be much neater, and I will have more privacy.
Rejection from a publisher
I’m not a good writer and will never get published. Getting a book published is extremely competitive. Even some of the world’s most famous authors experienced rejection many times. There are a lot more publishers out there, and I will find the right one for me.
Weight gain
I am destined to be an overweight person whom no one will find attractive. I will continue to be more healthy and active, but I will remember that I am a good and lovable person regardless of my weight.

 

 

8 Decatastrophizing Resources

There are various resources available for those who wish to reduce catastrophic thinking. For example, the following books contain helpful, science-based strategies intended to help adults and teens to free themselves from the negative grasp of anxious thinking.

These books also contain valuable information and tools for therapists working with catastrophizing clients.

 

1. The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry From Stopping You – Robert L. Leahy (2006)The Worry Cure

This book contains a seven-step program designed to help readers change their worry patterns.

It also aims to help them distinguish between productive and unproductive types of worry, take control of anxiety-promoting energy, identify prosocial opportunities, embrace certainty, and stop “safety behaviors” (i.e., doing things that make us feel momentarily safe, but ultimately leave us feeling worse).

Available on Amazon.

 

2. Feeling Great: The Revolutionary New Treatment for Depression and Anxiety – David D. Burns (2020)

Feeling GreatThis research-grounded book contains numerous case studies.

It also contains over 50 tools designed to eliminate the negative thinking that feeds depression.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

3. Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear & Worry – Jennifer Shannon (2017)Don't Feed the Monkey Mind

This book contains information and exercises aimed at eliminating anxious thoughts.

Readers learn how to stop feeding the anxious “monkey mind” by applying techniques grounded in CBT, mindfulness, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Available on Amazon.

 

4. Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts – Sally M. Winston and Martin N. Seif (2017)

Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive ThoughtsThis book provides readers with evidence-based CBT tools found to help individuals cope with negative rumination.

Rather than trying to stop unwanted thoughts, readers learn that they are not alone and that there are effective ways of moving past intrusive and anxiety-provoking cognitions.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

5. Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks – Barry McDonagh (2015)

DareThis unique, science-based book describes the ‘Dare’ technique as a way of eliminating panic attacks, general anxiety, and intrusive thoughts.

The book helps readers face fears, enhance confidence, identify healthy supplements, enjoy better sleep, and live their best life. The book also contains a free app along with helpful audio recordings.

Available on Amazon.

 

6. Anxiety: Panicking About Panic: A Powerful, Self-help Guide for Those Suffering from an Anxiety or Panic Disorder – Joshua Fletcher (2014)

AnxietyThis self-help book aims to help individuals dealing with anxiety disorders (e.g., generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder) or maladaptive health-focused ruminations.

Placing particular emphasis on anticipatory anxiety, the book contains a great deal of information, advice, and techniques designed to guide people in breaking free of excessive worry.

Available on Amazon.

 

 

7. Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back – Mary Karapetian Alvord and Anne McGrath (2017)

Conquer Negative Thinking for TeensThis workbook is designed to help adolescents learn how to recognize and reframe negative thought processes that promote anxiety, depression, and stress.

Teens are instructed on applying cognitive restructuring to target and modify nine particular negative thinking habits, such as the catastrophizing habit, the all-or-nothing habit, and the blaming habit.

Available on Amazon.

 

8. Treating Internalizing Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Core Techniques and Strategies – Douglas W. Nangle, David J. Hansen, Rachel L. Grover, Julie Newman Kingery, Cynthia Suveg, and Contributors (2016)

Treating Internalizing Disorders in Children and AdolescentsThis comprehensive book describes 13 evidence-based techniques aimed at treating anxiety and mood disorders among adolescents.

It is designed for use by therapists and contains rationales, examples, and guidelines for implementing various CBT strategies (e.g., relaxation, exposure, self-monitoring, etc.).

Available on Amazon.

 

 

Relevant Resources from PositivePsychology.com

PositivePsychology.com represents a great source of information and help for catastrophizers.

For example, the article 16 Decatastrophizing Tools, Worksheets, and Role-Plays contains six decatastrophizing tips. It also includes 10 decatastrophizing worksheets and information regarding cognitive restructuring and role-plays as techniques for combating catastrophic thinking.

The PositivePsychology.com Toolkit also offers various worksheets and exercises designed to aid individuals in conquering negative thinking.

Here are three examples:

 

1. Positive Emotion Brainstorm

The goal of the Positive Emotion Brainstorm exercise is to help individuals increase positive emotions in daily life. Readers choose 10 positive emotions they experience the least often but would like to experience more. They then choose three emotions from this list and engage in a mindfulness exercise in which they reflect on as many ways to increase each emotion as they can imagine.

The ultimate goal is to enable individuals to increase the experience of positive emotions and thereby enhance subjective wellbeing.

 

2. Reframing Negative Judgments

This worksheet aids readers in identifying the impact of negative judgments on feelings to disrupt the cycle of negative thinking. Readers are instructed to notice the negative judgments they make over the course of a week.

Most importantly, they are instructed to reframe the judgment in a less negative, less black-and-white, and more objective light. In the end, the tool supports readers in initiating a more positive spiral of thinking and feeling.

 

3. Leaves on a Stream

This exercise is designed to help readers develop the ability to let go of problematic thoughts by practicing cognitive diffusion. The tool contains a mindfulness ‘Leaves on a Stream’ script, which takes readers through a meditation practice in which they use the imagery of leaves gently flowing down a stream. The goal is to allow difficult or negative thoughts to float on by without reacting to them.

After the exercise, readers are instructed to debrief on the experience by exploring further questions. The exercise’s underlying purpose is to allow individuals with negative thoughts, such as catastrophizing, to learn how to detach from such thoughts and no longer view them as absolute truths.

 

A Take-Home Message

We all look toward the dark side from time to time. But when this rearview-mirror perspective becomes a persistent and even automatic way of thinking, it presents a real problem.

There are numerous examples of catastrophic thinking in everyday life, such as excessive worry over health issues or occupational failure. Catastrophizing functions as a cognitive distortion that feeds anxiety and depression by overestimating negative outcomes and underestimating coping skills. Consequently, catastrophizers feel anxious and helpless over their perceived inability to manage potential threats.

Luckily, just as events may build up to the extent that they feel catastrophic, so too may they be broken down and reconstructed such that they are no longer viewed as disastrous.

This article has supplied a great deal of valuable information and resources intended to guide readers in stopping catastrophic thinking and instead experience the peace of mind that comes from viewing life through a more realistic and hopeful lens.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our Positive CBT Exercises for free.

  • Asmundson, G., Vlaeyen, J., & Crombez, G. (2004). Understanding and treating fear of pain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Beck A., Rush A., Shaw B., & Emery G. (1978). Cognitive therapy for depression. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Burns, D. D. (2020). Feeling great: The revolutionary new treatment for depression and anxiety. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media.
  • Chan, S., Chan, S., & Kwok, W. (2015). Ruminative and catastrophizing cognitive styles mediate the association between daily hassles and high anxiety in Hong Kong adolescents. Child Psychiatry & Human Development46, 57–66.
  • Edwards, R., Bingham, C., Bathon, J., & Haythornthwaite, J. (2006). Catastrophizing and pain in arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other rheumatic diseases. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 55, 325–332.
  • Ellis, A. (n.d.). Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/albert-ellis-quotes
  • Fletcher, J. (2014). Anxiety: Panicking about panic: A powerful, self-help guide for those suffering from an anxiety or panic disorder. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing.
  • Gregory, A., Noone, D., Eley, T., & Harvey, A. (2010). Catastrophizing and symptoms of sleep disturbances in children. Journal of Sleep Research, 19, 175–182.
  • Hazlett-Stevens, H., & Craske, M. (2003). The catastrophizing worry process in generalized anxiety disorder: A preliminary investigation of an analog population. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 31, 387–401.
  • Hope, D., Burns, J., Hayes, S., & Warner, M. (2010). Automatic thoughts and cognitive restructuring in cognitive-behavioral group therapy for social anxiety disorder. Cognitive Therapy & Research34, 1–12.
  • Karapetian Alvord, M., & McGrath, A. (2017). Conquer negative thinking for teens: A workbook to break the nine thought habits that are holding you back. Oakland, CA: Instant Help Books.
  • Leahy, R. L. (2006). The worry cure: Seven steps to stop worry from stopping you. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  • McDonagh, B. (2015). Dare: The new way to end anxiety and stop panic attacks. Williamsville, NY: BMD Publishing.
  • Moore, E., Adams, H., Ellis, T., Thibault, P., & Sullivan, M. (2016). Assessing catastrophic thinking associated with debilitating mental health conditions. Disability and Rehabilitation, 40(3), 1–6.
  • Nangle, D. W., Hansen, D. J., Grover, R. L., Newman Kingery, J., & Suveg, C. (2016). Treating internalizing disorders in children and adolescents: Core techniques and strategies. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Noël, V., Francis, S., Williams-Outerbridge, K., & Fung, S. (2012). Catastrophizing as a predictor of depressive and anxious symptoms in children. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36, 311–320.
  • Quartana, P., Campbell, C., & Edwards, R. (2009). Pain catastrophizing: A critical review. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 9, 745–758.
  • Severeijns, R., Vlaeyen, J., Van den Hout, M., & Weber, W. (2001). Pain catastrophizing predicts pain intensity, disability, and psychological distress independent of the level of physical impairment. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 17, 165–172.
  • Shannon, J. (2017). Don’t feed the monkey mind: How to stop the cycle of anxiety, fear, and worry. Tarzana, CA: Deyan Audio.
  • Winston, S. M., & Seif, M. N. (2017). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: A CBT-based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

About the Author

Heather Lonczak holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with a focus on Positive Youth Development. She has published numerous articles aimed at reducing health disparities and promoting positive psychosocial youth outcomes (e.g., academic achievement, cultural identity, mindfulness and belief in the future). Heather is also a children’s book author whose publications primarily center around the enhancement of child resilience, as well as empathy and compassion for wildlife.

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