Catastrophizing is the mental habits of worrying about the worst-case scenario:
- Your manager sends you an email asking to set up an unscheduled meeting and you start imagining that you’re going to get fired
- You get a notification that your partner’s flight has been delayed and immediately worry that they’re plane has engine problems and is going to crash mid-flight
- Your partner forgets it’s your anniversary and you start imagining that they’ve “checked out” of the relationship, are having an affair, and that you’ll never “find someone” again.
If you struggle with catastrophizing—and all the unnecessary anxiety and stress it produces—you’ve probably been told plenty of times that it’s irrational and highly unlikely. In fact, you probably tell yourself this!
So in addition to being anxiety and stress-producing, catastrophizing is also incredibly frustrating… Why do I keep doing this?! I know it’s not realistic!
Here’s the thing…
Catastrophizing is a habit, which means if you want to stop, you can’t reason your way out of it. You have to train yourself to stop.
In the rest of this article, we’ll look at 4 specific ways to break the habit of catastrophizing for good.
1. Give your catastrophizing a name
One of the reasons catastrophizing is such a hard habit to break is that, like any habit, once you’re in it it’s very hard to pull out…
- Once you’ve imagined getting fired, the train of worry keeps you moving toward losing your house, moving back in with your parents, and never finding meaningful work again.
- Once you’ve imagined that pain in your shoulder being cancer, it’s hard to stop the steam of worries that follow: losing all your hair because of chemo, going bankrupt because of medical bills, etc.
The first step to stop catastrophizing so much is to become more aware of it early on, before you start elaborating on it. And a good way to do that…
Become more aware of your catastrophizing habit by giving it a name.
For example, as soon as you catch yourself catastrophizing, you might say:
- There goes Catastrophizing Carl again…
- Oh, hello, Worst-Case Scenario Wanda…
- Hey, who let you in here, Awfulizing Andy…
The reason this works is that it helps you see catastrophizing as something you’re doing (and capable of not doing) rather than being in the catastrophizing, a helpless victim at the mercy of your brain’s worry.
So give it a shot:
- Think of a funny, quirky name for your catastrophizing brain
- And whenever you notice yourself catastrophizing, say hello to them
- The more you practice, the faster you’ll get at this. And eventually, you’ll be identifying your catastrophizing so early that stopping will become much easier.
2. Validate the worry, control the catastrophizing
Thoughts are tricky things…
- Some thoughts are under your control. For example, if I asked you to imagine yourself sitting by the beach watching a sunset, you could initiate that thought. Then if I said, imagine there was a dinosaur walking on the beach, you could do that too. So clearly we have some control over our thoughts.
- But if I told you to never think about dinosaurs again, could you do it? I doubt it… At some point you’re going to see an ad for a movie about dinosaurs or notice a kid wearing a dinosaur shirt and a thought about dinosaurs is going to pop into your mind regardless of whether you want it to or not. So clearly not all thoughts are under our control.
This distinction between controllable and uncontrollable thoughts is especially important when it comes to worry and catastrophizing.
You can control the habit of catastrophizing. But you can’t control the worry that triggers it.
There will always be scary, anxiety-producing thoughts that pop into your mind from time to time. That is not something you can control. And the more you try to control it (or criticize yourself for not being able to control it) the less energy you have to control the thing you do have control over… Your habit of catastrophizing in response to an initial worry.
See, what we think of as catastrophizing really has two parts:
- The initial worry. This is the scary thought that pops into your head. It’s also the cue, or trigger, for the next part…
- The catastrophizing itself. Even though you can’t control whether that worry about getting dementia popped into your mind, you can control all the elaborating on it you do in response—the catastrophizing.
But here’s the trick most people don’t realize…
Your ability to control your catastrophizing depends on how well you respond to the initial worry.
Most people are either oblivious to the initial worry or they get critical with themselves for worrying. Either way, it’s going to be harder to stop catastrophizing.
On the other hand, if you acknowledge that initial worry and validate it, you increase your awareness of what’s happening in your mind, and at the same time, take some of the emotional pressure out of the system.
So try this the next time you find yourself catastrophizing, hit the pause button and do two things:
- Acknowledge the initial worry: Weird, that thought about the plane crashing popped into my head after seeing that ad for life insurance on Facebook.
- Validate the initial worry: I don’t like that my mind throws scary thoughts like this at me, but it’s okay. I know it’s normal and not something I can control. But I can control how I respond to it…
The better you are at validating the initial worry, the easier it will be to control the catastrophizing.
3. Make time to catastrophize on purpose
Remember that catastrophizing is a habit, and like any habit, “breaking” it is a matter of training yourself to do things differently.
So how do you train your mind to stop catastrophizing and going to the worst-case-scenario?
Well, one very effective—though counterintuitive—strategy is to make time to catastrophize on purpose using a technique called Scheduled Worry.
The basic idea is this:
If you want your brain to stop worrying and catastrophizing at the wrong times (any time an initial worry pops into mind), it helps to reward it for worrying at the right time and place (during your scheduled worry time).
In other words, having a fixed time to catastrophize it’s like setting good boundaries on your worry brain. And if you stick with it, eventually your brain will learn to respect those boundaries and not pull you into a habit of catastrophizing each time a worry pops into mind.
So here’s how to get started:
- Pick a time to catastrophize on purpose. Aim for a window of time that will work every day of the week. For example: Every evening at 8:00, after I put the kids down. Consistency is key, so choose a time you’re confident you can stick to most days.
- Set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes. During your window of worry time each day, sit down with pen and paper and set your timer.
- Write your worries and catastrophizing down on paper. Just start listing any and every worry you can think of and take each one to its most catastrophic conclusion possible. Catastrophize hard!
- Enforce good boundaries with your worry. When your time is up, stop immediately and get back to your day. If you find yourself worrying or catastrophizing throughout the day, remind yourself that you have a time for that and will do it then, not now. From now on, you catastrophize on paper, not in your head.
You can learn more about how to use scheduled worry time here: ScheduledWorry.com
4. Confront your need for control and certainty
While catastrophizing can seem like a completely unhelpful behavior, it’s important to realize that your brain has good intentions when it pushes you to catastrophize…
Catastrophizing is often a defense mechanism for dealing with helplessness and uncertainty.
As a rule, human beings strongly dislike feeling helpless and being uncertain…
- We feel overwhelmingly sad when we watch someone we love struggle with an addiction, for example.
- Or we get incredibly anxious when we don’t know how our presentation to the company will be received.
Because helplessness and uncertainty often lead to such painful emotions, it’s natural to do things that help us avoid those difficult feelings—in other words, we learn to defend ourselves against them.
Of course, defense mechanisms can take many forms…
- Some people learn to drink and use drugs to numb out the feelings associated with helplessness and uncertainty
- Some people use work and constant busyness to avoid having to think about helplessness and uncertainty
- Some people use relationships and other people to manage their helplessness and uncertainty (think reassurance seeking…)
But another way that people defend against feeling helpless and uncertain is the mental habit of catastrophizing…
When you catastrophize, you’re imagining how things could go in the future (which gives the illusion of certainty) and you’re imagining how you might respond (which gives the illusion of control).
So even though catastrophizing leads to more stress and anxiety long-term, in the moment, it gives you something to do that helps you feel more certain and in control.But like most defense mechanism and coping strategies, it’s a Band-Aid at best because in the long-run you haven’t actually reduced uncertainty or gained control. And worse, by avoiding those feelings around uncertainty and helplessness, you’ve trained your brain to see them as threats. Which means the next time they come up, you’re going to feel even more inadequate and afraid.
If you really want to stop catastrophizing, you need to understand what need it fills, and then address that need in a healthier way.
Here’s how I recommend getting started with this…
At some point in the hours or days after a major bout of catastrophizing, spend 10-20 minutes in a quiet place with pen and paper and reflect on these questions:
- What event, thought, emotion, etc. triggered my catastrophizing?
- How did I feel in those first few seconds? Specifically, was I feeling helpless or uncertain? How so?
- What emotions do I associate with helplessness?
- What emotions do I associate with uncertainty?
- Is it okay or not for me to feel helpless/uncertain?
- Are helplessness and uncertainty (or the feelings associated with them) bad or dangerous?
- Do I have to do anything about feeling helpless or uncertain?
This is not a quick fix. But the more awareness you can bring to the underlying need that catastrophizing fills, the more likely you will be to find more creative and healthy ways of responding to that need.
Simply validating the feelings of uncertainty and helplessness (rather than assuming they’re things that need to be gotten rid of) would be a good place to start.
All You Need to Know
Catastrophizing is a habit, which means if you want to stop, you can’t reason your way out of it. You have to train yourself to stop with better habits.
Here are a few simple ways to get started:
- Give your catastrophizing a name
- Validate the worry, control the catastrophizing
- Make time to catastrophize on purpose
- Confront your need for control and certainty
If you found this article helpful, you might enjoy these as well: