Sometimes, not only do things not go according to plan, but they go quite wrong. When that happens, you have a choice about what you’re going to do next. You can either give in and let go of what you’ve been working hard toward, or you can stay focused and come up with another plan to keep things going. In big things as well as in daily life, we are faced with choices like these and must decide how we will respond to those crises, hopefully avoiding catastrophic thinking.

There is a way of thinking that can undermine a calm and collected response to a crisis. Catastrophic thinking is a form of cognitive distortion in which a person typically assumes that the worst-case scenario in every situation is what is likely to happen. When that happens, it can make a situation seem overwhelmingly worse than it is, which can exacerbate anxiety and limit one’s ability to think creatively and problem-solve.

Some examples of catastrophic thinking.

We all have moments when we get caught thinking about the worst thing that can happen and getting stuck on that. For most people, however, that moment passes, and they can remind themselves that what comes next is still to be seen and that it likely won’t be as bad as imagined. However, for the person with catastrophic thinking, the worst possible outcome is what they fixate on, and that is what they consider the most likely outcome.

Catastrophic thinking can take hold in any area of a person’s life, including their relationships, work, or their health. Some instances of catastrophic thinking include the following:

  • “If I don’t get this job, I will never get another one and I’ll be a total failure in life.”
  • “If I fail at this examination, I’m never going to graduate, and my life will basically be over.”
  • “If I don’t recover from this procedure, I won’t get better, and I won’t be functional or able to take care of myself for the rest of my life.”
  • “If this relationship ends and my partner leaves me, I won’t ever find anyone else who loves me, and I will never be happy again.”
  • “If my friend doesn’t like this gift I got for them, they’ll hate me, and our friendship will be over.”

These and many more statements like them are representative of catastrophic thinking. It takes a situation that yes, might be unpleasant, but then goes on to magnify it until it is the worst thing that could happen. When you’re feeling stressed, you might find yourself thinking this way, and it only serves to deepen that stress and the anxiety that often accompanies it.

Catastrophizing doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a medical or mental health condition that needs intervention from a health professional. However, if you find yourself caught in a pattern of catastrophic thinking, or if you find that it’s disrupting your daily life, then it is worthwhile seeking help to address it. In some cases, catastrophic thinking may be pointing to anxiety and depression, which require the help of a mental health professional.

How catastrophic thinking can affect relationships.

When you catastrophize, it fills your mind and heart with heavy emotions that you then need to process and work through. The problem with catastrophizing is that it takes time and energy away from dealing with reality. A person who catastrophizes can feel overwhelmed by all the negative emotions drummed up by thinking each situation will have the worst possible outcome.

In a relationship, people walk with each other through difficult situations, navigating pain, anger, emotional hurt, conflict, and much else. Catastrophic thinking can undermine this necessary work by drawing attention to unlikely scenarios.

In many cases, the person who is catastrophizing doesn’t even know that they’re doing it, and it can cause conflict in the relationship as well as take away from handling present and real problems.

Moving from catastrophic to realistic thinking.

Catastrophic thinking can make your life difficult, and every situation seems like an impossible mountain to climb. However, it is possible to change the way you think and to relieve the hold catastrophic thinking may have on you. Catastrophic thinking can be a response to a past trauma that affected how you saw the world around you, and that reinforced negative ideas about what to expect from the world and other people.

In addition, catastrophic thinking is also often associated with anxiety disorders, chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Treating these conditions can help with addressing the catastrophic thinking that can often result from them.

Catastrophic thinking itself, whether it is associated with these conditions or not, can also be addressed directly. A large part of changing how you think is through cognitive reframing; that is when you look at your thoughts and your situation from a different perspective. You can ease and manage your catastrophic thinking using the following self-help tips, as well as making use of professional mental health care.

You can make use of self-guided techniques such as breathing and mindfulness exercises. Take a moment to breathe and create some distance between you and your negative thoughts. Give yourself a moment to pause before you address those thoughts and challenge them. Mindfulness can help you appreciate the moment that you’re in and create space between that and what you assume will happen in the future.

Through the help of a mental health expert such as a counselor, you can address your catastrophic thinking through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps a person become more self-aware and able to recognize when they are engaging in catastrophic thinking. CBT helps you challenge your negative thoughts, determine how accurate your thoughts are, and find coping mechanisms.

In addition to therapy, a doctor may prescribe medication, although the medication is not to treat the catastrophic thinking itself. Medication is used to treat any underlying conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Coping with and managing catastrophic thinking may include being frank with yourself and accepting that unpleasant and unplanned things do happen. Our lives are marked by various challenges, setbacks, bad days, and failures. The key is to take those bad days in stride and not take them to mean that life is going to be one bad day after another. Jesus rose from the grave, defeating death, and that matters in our daily lives.

As you deal with your catastrophic thinking, it’s important to recognize your patterns of thought and to be able to identify irrational thoughts that don’t line up with the facts. These thoughts need to be identified and then challenged as irrational and catastrophizing. You can tell yourself “Stop. You’re not thinking straight.”, and you can even repeat positive affirmations to displace your fear and catastrophic thinking.

You can take your thoughts captive and choose to focus on a positive option that might be available to you. It can take time to be able to do this. Perhaps at first what you can manage is to hold onto a less negative option, and that’s fine. Over time, you may be able to focus on and hold onto what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8-9).

Part of coping well and managing catastrophic thinking is taking care of yourself physically, as well as managing your thoughts. Proverbs says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). In the biblical worldview, the heart is the seat of our will and emotions. Guarding your heart means curating what you consume emotionally and mentally, and what you allow to influence you.

Managing catastrophic thinking can also come down to basics such as practicing excellent self-care. Your mind and emotions are affected by your body, and catastrophic thoughts have a greater likelihood of derailing you when you are feeling stressed, tired, or overworked. Get enough sleep each night, take breaks during the day when you can, and relieve your stress through journaling, exercise, or meditation.

If you struggle with catastrophic thinking, you can talk to a Christian counselor who can help you rein in your thoughts and help you be more at peace in your heart and mind.

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