In this article
Everyone experiences catastrophising now and again; it’s when your mind starts to proliferate and you suddenly find yourself experiencing the worst possible outcomes in your imagination. But some people are better at handling these experiences than others, and some people experience catastrophic thinking more often than other people.
Catastrophising thoughts on their own is not a mental health condition but it can be when coupled with other conditions such as depression and anxiety; it is also seen as a precursor to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With PTSD a person experiences vivid memories of a traumatic experience in the past and relives them; this is somewhat similar to reliving cognitive experiences about the future.
There are several signs and symptoms of catastrophising such as high anxiety, depression, stress, overthinking, and pessimism – these will be explored further in the article. To avoid catastrophising and to escape from the mind’s mental proliferation it can be useful to notice the signs and symptoms and have some strategies in place – such as mindfulness – to help you to cope.
In this article, we look at what catastrophising is and how to notice when it is taking control of your thought patterns. You will also learn about catastrophising as a mental health condition and how it relates to PTSD. You will find out the common signs and symptoms of catastrophising and learn some strategies for how to handle them when they occur. Read on to find out more.
What is catastrophising?
Catastrophising is a verb that is formed from the word “catastrophe”, meaning complete disaster. When someone catastrophises they think or anticipate that an event in their life is a complete disaster with devastating consequences. In reality, this is rarely the case. Often the thoughts, ideas, and fears we have based on speculation never materialise.
A common example of catastrophising is when we take an exam and we worry that we might fail it. Failing an exam would mean that we are a bad student, unable to study properly. It then follows that we are an incompetent person who will be unable to find a job and earn a living in the future.
But failing an exam isn’t an indication of future success. There are countless examples of successful people who dropped out of school and never obtained an education, and of people who failed exams but still found high paying jobs – however, someone who catastrophises can’t see the nuances.
Who is commonly affected?
Catastrophising can affect people of any age or disposition, but it is most commonly found in teenagers, young people, and children in the third grade (8 or 9 years old). Although everyone might catastrophise sometimes, it tends to affect those with underlying anxiety or depressive conditions more strongly.
Studies show that catastrophising is more pronounced in people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), PTSD, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In a 2015 study, for instance, 2,802 teenagers were analysed and it was found that those with anxiety conditions tended to catastrophise more often than those without, which points to underlying emotional factors.
A 2012 study found that catastrophising was not only linked to anxiety and depressive disorders but that it was also prevalent in children under the age of 10. It’s possible that children of this age don’t have the mental capacity to see alternative options and assume the worst which leads to stress.
Is catastrophising a precursor to PTSD?
PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which is a condition experienced by some people following a traumatic life event. PTSD events include serious accidents, physical or sexual assaults, abuse, and serious health conditions. People with PTSD often relive their past traumas in nightmares and flashbacks.
According to the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, catastrophising prior to a traumatic event is a precursor to PTSD symptoms following the experience. Catastrophising is characterised by the enhanced perception of harm or risk, it says, which creates a future threat. This may lead to stronger PTSD symptoms.
If an individual has adaptive emotional strategies for coping with setbacks or trauma, including positive reappraisal and problem-solving, they are less likely to catastrophise before a traumatic event or during a PTSD episode. The reverse is also the case. While there is no direct correlation there appears to be a strong causal link.
Is catastrophising a mental illness?
Catastrophising is not officially categorised as a mental illness, however, it is a symptom of several mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. It is also a symptom that antagonises mental health disorders and conditions such as PTSD and makes them more severe.
If you are predisposed to catastrophising and this is coupled with generalised anxiety, PTSD, or OCD, you might find it challenging to separate the various conditions and see how they interact. Anxiety, for instance, generates a feeling of fear and aversion; if your brain also catastrophises it’s easy to speculate about the worst outcomes which exacerbate the anxiety levels.
Although catastrophising is not considered a mental illness on its own it is closely linked to mental illnesses and has similar treatment options. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), for instance, is effective for both. This is a therapy that trains people to assess their experiences holistically and find realistic responses. Mindfulness and medication are also very useful.
Signs and symptoms of catastrophising
If you are prone to catastrophising you might often find yourself in situations in which you overthink and stress about the future. This is normal to an extent but when it starts to prolong or spill into a low mood, it can become more of an issue.
Catastrophising is not officially classed as a mental illness, but it has many of the same characteristics, especially in extreme cases. You also find that many of the same solutions for mental health conditions work well for catastrophising. The first thing to do is to notice the signs and symptoms.
How to recognise the signs and symptoms
Like a mental illness, catastrophising can come on very suddenly and quickly overtake your whole experience. One incident quickly leads to another until you are involved with the worst possible outcomes.
Because catastrophising is a brain phenomenon that uses both memory and imagination, it can feel as if you are living through those worst outcomes. This isn’t easy, but fortunately, there is a way to resolve the situation and settle down again.
Awareness and mindfulness are key to removing yourself from the immediacy of your imagined experience, but this is only possible if you know the signs of catastrophising and you are able to pinpoint them. Usually, there will be a collection of thoughts about the future closely linked to strong feelings of fear and stress.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Catastrophising takes many forms. Often the type of catastrophising will depend on the individual and how their brain functions in accord with their backstop and present life experience. However, some catastrophising has characteristic hallmarks that anyone can recognise.
The signs and symptoms of catastrophising include:
- Anxious feeling.
- Racing thoughts.
- Fear and anger.
- Stuck in your head.
- Internet searching.
- Negative self talk.
If a life situation triggers you into catastrophising you might experience one or all of the symptoms listed above. It isn’t easy to break the cycle of catastrophising, but one of the first steps in doing so is to recognise these signs and bring your attention to them.
Approaches to managing signs and symptoms
When you are in the throes of catastrophising it can feel as though you are consumed by your worst fears and the future. In a way you are. This is a very uncomfortable and unpleasant place to be, but luckily there are several ways to find relief. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
The first thing you must do is bring your awareness to the situation: I am catastrophising right now! It helps if you say it loudly to yourself or even say it out loud to break through the noise. A strong experience requires a strong response. Once you have awareness of the experience you can work with it constructively.
One of the ways you can work with this experience is you try your best to think realistically about the present and the future. You need to slow everything down and take things one step at a time. Writing is very good for this. Grab your phone or a piece of paper and begin to make lists. Later you can organise the lists and assess each element calmly.
Recognising catastrophic thinking
Awareness is so important if you are affected by catastrophic thinking. Without awareness, you will be completely caught up in your world of thoughts which will only lead to eventual exhaustion.
When you bring awareness into the equation you start to step back from your catastrophic thinking and notice that your mind patterns are not realistic. Instead, you relate more to your emotions which helps to pacify the worry.
What is catastrophic thinking?
Catastrophic thinking is when your brain engages your imagination and creates worst-case scenarios; this is often fuelled by anxiety. Anxiety is an emotion. It manifests as a feeling of unease in your body – it is a combination of worry and fear. When this is coupled up to future thinking, it can generate catastrophic scenarios.
Although anxiety and worry feel very present and very real – as do your thought patterns about the future – there is usually a very small chance of those fears becoming realised. It’s a little bit like a smoke alarm that goes off when there is no smoke or stimulation for it. If there was a fire the smoke alarm should go off, but there isn’t one.
How can it affect your day?
There is a close connection between your thoughts and your emotions – they are like a stringed instrument or a piano (also a stringed instrument). If you pluck the string the instrument makes a sound; that’s a little bit like having a thought and the sound is the emotion. Other times the emotion comes first – like inspiration – then you have the thought.
If your thoughts are continually negative the emotions you generate will be difficult and uncomfortable; this affects your life and produces undesirable outcomes. In this analogy, you can create better outcomes by playing more harmonious thought notes. According to Dr David Burns, you can manage catastrophic thinking using minimisation strategies.
How you can handle it
Dr David Burns talks about cognitive distortions which are inaccurate or negative thinking patterns that cause mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Catastrophic thinking is part of a family of cognitive distortions that take your emotional experience away from reality. Catastrophising creates an unrealistic emotional landscape.
There is nothing comforting or wholesome about this emotional landscape; it’s a bit like looking at an issue through the wrong end of a telescope and magnifying it instead of minimising it. There are various strategies to cope with catastrophic thinking but one that is effective is to turn the telescope around and minimise the issue in your mind. Another way is to put it in a psychic box on a shelf.
What help is available?
It’s good to know that help is available for cognitive distortions like catastrophising. It’s also reassuring to know that catastrophising is very common and many people like you experience it. That means there is plenty of help available for dealing with the challenges of catastrophising. This help tends to be personal coping strategies, but a health care professional and medication can also play a part.
How to resource yourself
When you are in the throes of catastrophic thinking it can be a lonely place and you feel unable to communicate with anyone. That’s why it’s important to resource yourself and equip yourself with personal strategies that you know will help you to escape the trap of catastrophising and find your contentment once again.
The first step in resourcing yourself is to notice when you are catastrophising. Recognising this is half the battle and you won’t be able to take progressive steps until you do. After you notice you are catastrophising you can find ways to support recovery. Create a comfortable space, take a walk, do some writing. Equip yourself with various mindfulness techniques.
Activities to try
There are several ways you can respond to catastrophising after you notice that is what’s going on. These strategies include mindfulness approaches, writing, minimising, reframing devices, and meditation. If you are prone to catastrophising it’s an excellent idea to practise these activities regularly so you can go to them easily when things get bad.
One of the best ways to pacify your anxiety and settle down your thoughts is to sit with your emotions. The worry and fear in your body might feel intense but if you redirect your attention into these emotions and allow your body to absorb them, you will find the mental activity settles down and you come back into the reality of the present moment.
Who to consult
As with many cognitive distortions, catastrophising can come on quickly and unexpectedly; you might be having a fine day when something happens to trigger the condition and sends you into a spin. That is why it’s best to equip yourself for these situations. Still, it’s a good idea to consult someone about the condition.
Your medical professional should be the first person you talk to about your catastrophising, it’s important they understand your condition for medical reasons and they can offer you guidance and support. Other useful consultants include counsellors, psychotherapists, CBT instructors and mindfulness teachers, all of whom have various strategies for managing thoughts and emotions.
This article has considered, what is catastrophising? It is a common mental health condition that isn’t classed as a mental illness but does contain some of the same hallmarks. Coupled with other difficult emotional conditions such as anxiety and depression, catastrophising can become difficult and dangerous in some cases.
There are many signs and symptoms of catastrophising that you can learn to notice if you want to remove yourself from the stress of living out the worst possible outcomes. When you catastrophise you tend to experience stress, anxiety, and depression as well; you might also have some difficult and challenging thoughts about other people.
The key to escaping from this difficult mental state is to bring awareness to your thoughts and feelings. If you find this challenging try labelling the thoughts and feelings and calling them out audibly in a safe space – I’m feeling anxious, you might say, or, I’m catastrophising right now. Labelling your experiences in this way helps to bring your experiences into your awareness.
In this article, you have learned about the condition and how to help yourself during the effects of it, however, in some cases you might also need some extra help such as a therapist or a medical practitioner. If your symptoms are strong and you struggle with catastrophising thoughts contact your medical practitioner to discuss your options.