When Thinking Becomes Catastrophic

Catastrophic thinking — it’s an actual thing. A pattern of thinking where we routinely expect the worst to happen. Even when there is little evidence that catastrophe is imminent, catastrophic thinkers find a way to envision it. This is a great skill to have if you build bridges or skyscrapers for a living. But for others of us, it’s a type of negative thinking that can cause unwelcome anxiety and stress.

People who engage in catastrophic thinking tend to magnify the bad and minimize or disregard the good. They routinely jump to the worst possible conclusion, believing that one bad thing happening must ultimately result in disaster. For example, catastrophic thinking might lead someone to believe that failing an exam will lead to them being kicked out of school. And if they’re kicked out of school they’ll never be able to find a job. In their mind, they’ve gone from getting As and Bs to living on the streets in the blink of a thought.

Catastrophic thinking is sometimes a symptom of certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression. It can also be a learned behavior that develops as a response to stressful or traumatic events. The good news is, either way, it can be overcome.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that can help people recognize and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, including catastrophic thinking. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, can also help people become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, which can make it easier to challenge negative thinking patterns.

That said, catastrophic thinking isn’t all bad. Like any other pattern of thinking, it exists for a reason. It has an evolutionary purpose, a survival benefit. It’s helped humans thrive for tens of thousands of years. Today, thinking about potential disaster might spur someone to create an emergency kit, develop an evacuation plan, or build safer, stronger bridges and skyscrapers. It’s really only a problem when we lose control of it or allow it to take control of us.

Of course, the benefits of catastrophic thinking should be weighed against the negative consequences, including the increased distress that affects our well-being. It’s generally better to approach risks and challenges with a more balanced and realistic perspective, rather than constantly focusing on worst-case scenarios.

If you struggle with catastrophic thinking, it might be helpful to talk to a mental health professional who can provide support and guidance. If you’d like help developing coping strategies to manage your negative thoughts and feelings, feel free to reach out to me.

3 thoughts on “When Thinking Becomes Catastrophic

  1. Great way of breaking it down Mike, thanks. Like the photo too, a bit artistic for the topic! My wife Dawn calls catastrophic thinking “crash and burn fantasies.” You ever heard of that? Like obsessing about the plane going down but more so in the context of your kids when they’re young. Seems pretty typical but yeah can really become a thing I would think. I do find for me, it’s a kind of “loop” akin to getting the hiccups. You need to trip it somehow.

    1. I like that, crash and burn fantasies. As I type it out, the word fallacies popped into my head… as in crash and burn fallacies. I’m gonna hang on to that one. It can be kind of like getting the hiccups, that’s good too. Be well, sir.

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