What is Catastrophic Thinking? (And How to Stop)

Published on: 13 Sep 2018
Clinically Reviewed by Liz Kelly, LCSW
A woman looks pensive in the dark with colored light around her body

Updated on 1/11/2022

When your thoughts start spiraling, getting off the “staircase” can feel impossible. One terrible notion leads to the next: If I can’t get this report done in time, you might think, then I’ll be fired. And if I’m fired, I’ll have nothing to do all day. If I have nothing to do all day, I’ll fall into a video game and beer hole. If I fall into a video game and beer hole, then my wife will leave me. And then…and then…and then

Does this process sound familiar? This anxiety spiral — also known as “catastrophic thinking” or “magnifying,” — is cognitive distortion that often occurs alongside anxiety and depression. Think of your brain as a rocky mountain: one single negative thought loosens an avalanche of related anxieties.

Here are some other examples:

  • If I don’t stay up all night studying, I’ll fail my test — and if I fail my test, I’ll be kicked out of school.
  • I have a missed call from my mother — someone I love must have died.
  • There’s a weird freckle on my elbow. It’s cancer. I’m going to die. Tomorrow.

No matter how true and valid each thought feels, it’s important to remember that they are simply thoughts — and thoughts can be constrained. Minimizing your negative intrusive thoughts can help reduce your anxiety or be an important stepping-stone in your depression recovery: after all, these torrential cascades of terrible thoughts increase cortisol levels in your brain. Too much cortisol — also known as the “stress hormone” — can cause a number of long-term health problems.

How to Prevent Catastrophic Thinking

Prevent catastrophic thinking by preparing your mind before irrational thoughts strike. Here’s how.

1. Keep an eye on your thoughts

How can you stop something you don’t realize is happening until you’re deep in its maw? The first step in preventing the anxiety avalanche is learning to recognize the unique fingerprint or thought pattern of your brain’s catastrophic thinking.

Practice observing your negative thoughts without judging their validity or truthfulness. If that sounds hard, you aren’t alone: there’s a reason an increasing number of Americans are taking up yoga and meditation. Sign up for a nearby yoga class or take time each morning to meditate. These practices teach you how to acknowledge your thoughts — without getting swept up in their tide.

Stopping catastrophic thinking requires stepping in at the first sign of trouble. Once you understand your personal thought pattern, recognizing a disturbance and replacing it with a positive emotion will be much easier.

In working with my clients, I have found that when they practice their strategies when calm, it builds the ‘muscle’ so when they need to access it when the negative thoughts start, the ‘muscle’ is stronger so they’re easier to do. Noticing your thoughts without judgment takes practice, but is a skill that you can develop. Even taking a few minutes each day can make a difference. Take a minute to notice the thoughts when you are not anxious and practice replacing them with a calmer, reassuring thought will help you strengthen the skill for when you need it.”           

Talkspace therapist Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

2. Find your spiral’s source

When you’re deep in the black cloud of thinking of the worst case scenario, uncovering the spiral’s original spark can be difficult. You’re worried about losing your boyfriend, your apartment, and your job — but dig deep to find the root. Did this spiral begin because you failed a pop quiz in chemistry class? Because you felt a funny lump in your armpit?

Once you’ve found what caused the spiral, it’s easier to deal with the problem. Think about it like killing a fast-growing vine: If you don’t dig out the roots, the leaves will continue spreading indefinitely.

3. Use your logical brain

Once you’ve dialed down your catastrophic thinking to its source, take time to dissect your specific anxieties about the issue. Now is a great opportunity to practice your meditation skills, lest you fall into yet another spiral during the dissection! Perhaps learning how to drive terrifies you, and you’re thinking of the worst situation or a looming threat every time you get behind the wheel.

Use logic to help defeat your negative thinking. A lot of panic comes down to overestimating the true chances of danger. Learning the facts may sooth your mind: Research how often car accidents happen and read up on best driving practices to ensure that you’re the safest driver you can be.

Are your concerns health-related? While it might seem scary, the best cure is seeing your doctor and understanding the treatment options available like cognitive behavioral therapy. Or if you’re struggling at work, talk it through with your boss — chances are they’ll be more kind and receptive than you expected.

4. Challenge your negative thinking

Spirals are scary because the catastrophic thought feels so real, but if you notice yourself slipping, take a deep breath and challenge your beliefs. Ask yourself, “Is this threat real right now?” Perhaps you’ve been stuck in your bed for days waiting for laboratory test results. Your mind may be caught up in a web of worries: Do I have a disease? If I have a disease, am I going to die? Even if I survive, how will I afford my care?

Stop. Focus on the here and the now. If the test results are bad, you can deal with it at that moment — don’t waste time panicking about it now!

You want to challenge your health and pain catastrophizing, but you don’t want to beat yourself up for having anxious intrusive thoughts. Our brain does all sorts of unwelcome things without our consent, and having a panic spiral doesn’t make you a bad person. Don’t get angry at yourself for falling for your mind’s clever trap — focus your energies on escaping its pull.

One thing to keep in mind is that worrying forward does not help the situation. Being able to challenge your negative thoughts while at the same time being compassionate to yourself about what is happening will help you get out of the spiral. Blaming yourself adds another layer of negative thoughts, while being compassionate shifts the negative thought spiral. While it takes practice, you can put up a stop sign to help the negative thought spiral less intensely.”                 

Talkspace therapist Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Get in touch with a professional.

Not everyone can overcome their catastrophic thinking solo, and that’s okay! If you’re struggling to rein in your negative thoughts, reach out to a therapist for additional help.

They can work through the causes of your catastrophic thinking and recommend specific, tailored-to-you exercises and techniques. With their help, you can step out of the spiral and start living again.

Sources:

1. McEwen BS. Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. Eur J Pharmacol. 2008;583(2-3):174-185. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2007.11.071
2. Time.com. Accessed December 28, 2021. http://time.com/4624276/yoga-workplace-mindfulness/
3. Keelan P. Managing anxiety by reducing catastrophic thinking: Part 1 – Overestimating danger – Dr. Patrick Keelan, Calgary Psychologist. Dr. Patrick Keelan, Calgary Psychologist. Published November 25, 2013. Accessed December 28, 2021. https://drpatrickkeelan.com/anxiety/managing-anxiety-by-reducing-catastrophic-thinking-part-1-overestimating-danger/

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

You May Also Like