MENTAL HEALTH

Because some people expect disasters in everyday situations

Catastrophizing is a domain frequented by overthinkers, who tend to take the smallest of problems and turn them into full-blown catastrophes, plunging them into a vortex of doom and gloom. It’s almost like having a VIP membership to the Anxiety Club, where everything is on the brink of disaster and an individual feels like they’re in the middle if they do. In general, it can be described as a grueling journey to overcome the hiccups of life, while preparing for the apocalypse at the same time.

Catastrophic thinking — a term reportedly coined by psychologist Albert Ellis in 1957 — is a cognitive distortion that can significantly impact an individual’s well-being by driving them into a spiral of negativity and shame. It is characterized by irrational and hyperbolic thought patterns that pave the way for anxiety and anguish. “It’s a negatively distorted way of thinking, which elevates the intensity of emotions to levels that are difficult to manage, and in some cases are overwhelming,” explains Patrick Keelan, a Canadian psychologist.

Typically, catastrophic thinking arises from an almost single-minded focus on the “worst possible outcome” in a given situation, which is quickly assigned the status of “more likely result” in the mind of a catastrophist thinker. This is in part due to confirmation bias, in which the catastrophic thinker seeks information that aligns with their negative belief, selectively focusing on cues that validate their catastrophic thinking and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

Ron Breazeale, a clinical psychologist, paints a vivid picture of what that entails: “You have been [deployed at a foreign country] a couple of months. You talked to your husband and children every week. You tried to reach them last night. The connection was bad. You start thinking about the stress your job is putting on your husband and family. A thought comes to your mind: “he left Me.” You start obsessing about it. Even though you two have been married for a long time and never separated, you start to think that he’s hooked up with someone else who can be there for him and the kids. You have no evidence to support this belief, but you begin to ruminate on it rather than focusing on your responsibilities to yourself and your unit.


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The propensity to magnify the importance of a simple technical problem is often accompanied by a relentless internal dialogue full of doubts and criticisms. By contributing to a pervasive sense of shame arising from perceived shortcomings or failures, the element of self-hatred becomes a tool to justify the otherwise irrational thinking one is engaging in. The shame that arises thus further fuels catastrophic thinking, perpetuating the spiral of negativity and self-judgment. It soon becomes a vicious cycle.

Research suggests that catastrophist thinkers are at a higher risk of developing PTSD. Interestingly, the development of PTSD increases the susceptibility to catastrophism. “Trauma is seen as evidence that the worst can actually happen and seen as a sign that only traumatic events will happen from now on. No other possible outcomes are even considered. Over time, catastrophic thinking develops into a daily coping strategy designed to help ensure that the person is never put into a dangerous situation again,” explains Matthew Tull, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Toledo. specializes in PTSD.”But having catastrophic thoughts repeatedly can be crippling, leading to extreme anxiety, avoidance, and isolation.”

It’s no surprise then that studies have found that catastrophic thinking is often a precursor to both anxiety and depression, with the latter being brought on by the feelings of hopelessness that can come from being stuck in a negative spiral. The former, of course, manifests itself as a result of perpetually dwelling on negative outcomes that can cause one’s body to physically react while the catastrophe is already underway, reinforcing stress.


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Catastrophic thinking is also a common feature of being neurodivergent, particularly with autism, ADHD, and OCD. Catastrophizing in people living with OCD is triggered by a person’s tendency to fixate on the possibility of colossally adverse outcomes that are also unlikely. For autistic and ADHD individuals, it results from emotional dysregulation, negative core beliefs, and largely unfavorable experiences of navigating life in a world that habitually discriminates against their neurotypes. Incidentally, OCD, ADHD, and autism often co-occur with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (be it PTSD or C-PTSD).

Furthermore, catastrophism can also lead to avoidance as a coping mechanism, causing people to stay away from certain situations, limiting their growth. What further reinforces this avoidance is the sense of isolation that can follow the cycle of negativity and shame, causing them to withdraw from social interactions and forego opportunities out of fear of judgment, if not outright failure.

Escaping the cycle isn’t easy either, especially since it’s ignited by intrusive thoughts. Of course, by cultivating self-compassion, undergoing therapy, and amassing other tools to combat catastrophism, they could prevent it from taking over their lives. But as Breazeale says, “Catastrophic thinking is to be managed, not discounted.”


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