What is Catastrophising and How Can it be Managed?

What is Catastrophising

Catastrophising turns minor worries into overwhelming fears. It gives new life to mishaps or misunderstandings, letting them endure in our minds as defining failures. And even if the worst possible outcomes we imagine are rare, the anxiety and stress they cause are very real.

But catastrophising is manageable. You can learn to recognise and label irrational fears, freeing you from the negative thought patterns catastrophising invites. Understanding the symptoms and triggers is the first step.

This guide gives clear advice on how to deal with catastrophic thinking. It covers causes, symptoms and self-help techniques you can use to stop catastrophising from taking over your life.

What is Catastrophising?

Do you find yourself assuming disaster will follow even small mistakes? That’s catastrophising in action. It’s a mental habit where a minor concern snowballs into a catastrophe in our minds. Imagine you’re running late for a meeting. Instead of thinking, “I might miss a few minutes,” catastrophising tells you, “I’ll be fired for this.”

Catastrophising is part of the human condition. Our minds are hardwired to spot dangers – a survival skill from our prehistoric days. Early humans needed to be on constant alert. Thankfully, we almost never find ourselves in mortal danger now.

But this disconnect between perceived and actual danger has consequences for our mental health. Our anxiety dials up over situations that aren’t life-threatening. And in this heightened state, we often assume the worst possible outcomes.

It’s a common experience. Catastrophising overtakes many of us at different points in our lives, with concerns over relationships, health and work as the most common triggers.

Recognising catastrophising is the first step towards managing it. Labelling fears as irrational helps you overcome them. So, it’s essential to know the signs of catastrophising and how the experience is separate from healthy concerns.

What are the Symptoms of Catastrophising?

Psychological Symptoms

The symptoms of catastrophising typically start with persistent negative thinking.

You’ll tend to constantly fear the worst outcomes in any situation, particularly if that situation involves a mistake or social embarrassment.

Following this established pattern of negative thinking leads to a multitude of “what-if” scenarios. Scenarios that are inevitably disastrous, leaving you feeling overwhelmed by anxiety.

This sense of anxiety or dread dominates our thinking, which brings on further psychological effects. These effects include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • A sense of helplessness
  • A sense of hopelessness for the future

This final psychological symptom is perhaps the hardest to live with. A negative outlook can severely affect motivation and emotional wellbeing. It can also drive other compulsive behaviours, such as punishing self-talk or obsessively searching online for proof your negativity is justified.

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Physical Symptoms

Accompanying anxiety are several physical symptoms of catastrophising. These signs are synonymous with the body’s ‘fight-or-flight response’ as catastrophising is a confusion of our survival instincts.

Physical symptoms may include:

  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • A jittery feeling
physical symptoms of catastrophising

Why do People Catastrophise?

Catastrophising is different for different people.

For some, it’s a psychological shield. Imagining the worst lets you brace yourself for disappointment. This process is rooted in self-preservation. For our ancestors, prioritising threats was crucial for survival. For us, this instinct often leads to undue stress over everyday concerns.

For others, catastrophising is a response to past trauma. Traumatised individuals perceive threats more acutely, making them anticipate disaster by default. Although counterproductive, this mental strategy is an attempt to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Catastrophising also has a significant overlap with general anxiety disorder (GAD). People who experience GAD tend to catastrophise. There’s a similar link with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, too.

Is Catastrophising a Mental Health Disorder?

Despite its connection to other conditions, catastrophising is not considered a standalone disorder. Instead, it’s observed as a behaviour. A behaviour that’s often associated with mental health conditions, such as GAD or depression.

People living with these conditions consistently overestimate danger and underestimate their ability to cope. These patterns of thought typically lead to catastrophising.

This cognitive bias towards expecting the worst can be particularly debilitating for individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is effectively reliving the worst moments of your life. People with PTSD then assume all future events will follow the same pattern, inevitably ending in trauma. This process mirrors catastrophic thinking and makes recovery much more challenging.

Although catastrophising is not a mental health disorder, it can be managed like other conditions. You can also break patterns of catastrophic thinking with consistent awareness and effort.

How Do You Manage Catastrophising?

How you manage catastrophising depends on the severity of your thoughts and their impact on your daily life.

If catastrophic thinking is making it impossible to cope, medical treatment might be necessary. You should also consider treatment if catastrophising is making other mental health conditions harder to manage.

Alternatively, self-guided treatments may help you reframe catastrophic thoughts and develop resilience.

Medical Treatments

Medical treatments for catastrophising primarily involve cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT works by identifying, challenging and changing negative behavioural patterns and beliefs. This approach has proven effective in addressing the underlying thought processes that cause catastrophising.

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms of associated conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Medication can help stabilise these conditions, laying the foundation for therapeutic work.

Other therapeutic approaches may also be recommended. These approaches include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).

MBSR aims to reduce stress and improve emotional regulation. It does this through mindfulness meditation, which develops awareness of thoughts and feelings without judgment.

DBT combines cognitive-behavioural techniques with mindfulness principles to teach coping skills for stress and self-regulation.

Medical treatments for catastrophising

Self-Guided Treatments

Self-guided treatments can also be used to manage your catastrophising.

Mindfulness meditation can be particularly effective. It encourages awareness and presence, helping you break free from the cycle of negative thoughts.

Other techniques can achieve a similar effect. Thought-stopping is, as the name suggests, a way to stop negative thoughts from becoming unmanageable. When you notice catastrophic thinking, tell yourself to stop. Then, find a healthy distraction to occupy your mind, such as journaling or engaging in a hobby.

As with other mental health challenges, it helps to look after your physical health. Good sleep, diet and exercise all correlate to good mental health.

Adopting these self-care practices can help you control your catastrophic thinking. But it’s easier to maintain mental wellbeing if you learn more about it. Online mental health courses can help with this.

Mental Health Courses

Exploring mental health courses can be a transformative step towards understanding and managing your mental wellbeing.

Our online courses offer the flexibility to learn about mental health management at your own pace. With a focus on stress relief, these courses are particularly helpful in combating catastrophising. You’ll gain insights into effective coping mechanisms to help manage life’s challenges and keep worries in check.

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