Catastrophizing is thinking the worst will happen. But self-care, seeking support, and therapy can stop this adverse behavior.

Catastrophizing involves thinking that the worst will happen after actions or events you experience in your life.

Yes, considering the consequences of a decision or life event is a regular part of thinking things through. But, if you find yourself unable to stop thinking about the worst possible outcome, no matter how improbable, you’re catastrophizing.

Catastrophizing is a way of thinking known as a cognitive distortion. It’s not a mental health condition.

But living with a mental health condition may put you at a higher risk of developing this negative way of thinking. You may also have a higher risk for catastrophizing if you’ve experienced traumatic events or seen those around you go through similar thought processes.

But you can take steps to stop catastrophizing. Self-care, talking it out with loved ones, and therapy options can help you challenge the negative thoughts and feelings you experience.

A person catastrophizes when they think the worst possible outcome will occur in a situation or due to a choice they make, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

If you’re catastrophizing, you may be worried about a disastrous outcome with little reason or facts.

Catastrophizing can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. Research from 2014 shows that catastrophizing can also worsen the experience of chronic pain.

Catastrophizing can start as a small thought and then rapidly escalate.

For example, you have a disagreement over dinner plans with your significant other. As you think about it, you start to believe that they don’t love you anymore and that they’ll break up with you.

If you continue to follow these thoughts, it may cause you to worry about where you’ll live or other big picture scenarios. Having these thoughts can lead to a panic attack or other reactions to stress and anxiety.

Catastrophic thinking is often a symptom of an underlying mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.

Though it can be hard to tell when you’re spiraling with your thinking, there are some signs to look for:

  • You have general feelings of depression, anxiety, or pessimism.
  • You have racing thoughts.
  • You feel stuck in your head.
  • Anger or fear may start to feel overwhelming.
  • You experience negative self-talking.
  • You excessively search the internet for solutions to whatever problem you’re experiencing.
  • You find yourself overthinking a situation, choice, or event.

When you experience catastrophic thinking, you may not believe you deserve good things, or that good things can happen to you. You may start to look for reasons something won’t work, which can sometimes lead you to create the reality you were fearing.

At some point, nearly everyone experiences some catastrophic thinking. It becomes a problem only when it affects your daily life.

Experts still don’t know the exact cause of catastrophizing. Some possible causes include:

  • differences in brain chemistry or changes in processes
  • learning it as a coping mechanism from family members or people close to you
  • a response to one or more life events or experiences, such as witnessing both parents losing their jobs, divorce, drug addiction, or other traumatizing events

A study published in 2010 looking at catastrophizing due to chronic pain showed that people who experienced it had changes in their pituitary and hypothalamus responses. It also noted that the brain area that registers emotions associated with pain had an increased level of activity.

A 2017 study showed that catastrophic thinking is linked to a deeply held core belief. It is thought to be a mechanism to regulate negative emotional responses. Focusing on negative thoughts puts stress on the body that can manifest in physical symptoms and conditions.

Some suggest that low self-esteem and fear form the root cause of catastrophizing. You may feel like you can’t successfully handle a problem or event.

Other possible causes of catastrophizing include:

Catastrophizing isn’t a mental health condition. But it can be a symptom of a mental health condition.

Conditions that may cause you to experience catastrophizing include:

You may not experience catastrophizing if you’re living with one or more of these conditions. But it’s possible these conditions can increase your risk of experiencing this type of negative thinking.

You can take steps to prevent catastrophizing from spiraling out of control. Some of these steps include:

  • practice journaling when you are experiencing these thoughts can assist you in recognizing patterns and revisiting these entries at a later time, possibly with someone you trust
  • practice mindfulness
  • challenge your thoughts and fears
  • schedule a worry session to review and think about your fears for a few minutes
  • focus on solutions to the problems
  • work on accepting uncertainty
  • create problem-solving strategies for the what-if scenarios
  • talk with a friend or family member

If you have trouble controlling your thoughts on your own, you may consider reaching out for more help. Some therapy options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is effective in reducing catastrophizing among people with fibromyalgia, according to research from 2017. CBT techniques include cognitive restructuring, reducing cognitive distortions, and recognizing how thoughts and behaviors interact.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). According to 2019 research, MBCT may help reduce catastrophizing by helping you control your thoughts and identify irrational and negative thinking.

A therapist and treatment team can help you identify if medication would be helpful and appropriate to reduce your symptoms.

If you have an underlying condition, consider seeking treatment and follow the plan crafted by your therapist or healthcare professional.

You can also take general steps to improve your health. Eating a balanced diet, getting exercise, participating in activities, and other positive steps may help you feel better overall.

You can learn more tips on managing catastrophizing.

You can take steps to manage your negative thoughts and emotions. If you find that catastrophizing is interfering with your life, you can start by:

  • journaling and reflecting on your thoughts and feelings
  • practicing positive self-talk and mantras to remind yourself that you can handle whatever comes your way
  • devising strategies to solve potential issues

Stress management and relaxation techniques may help break the cycle of catastrophizing. Some ideas to try include:

  • Identify potential triggers of stress and recognize them. Sometimes just being aware of stressors can help you have a plan for coping.
  • Make time for yourself and your needs. Taking a few minutes each day to do something for yourself like taking a walk or reading a book can help you relax.
  • Exercise. Moving your body triggers feel-good hormones and decreases stress.
  • Spend time outside. Going outside and spending time in a green space can reduce stress.
  • Get enough sleep. Not sleeping enough can worsen stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.

If these steps don’t work, consider reaching out to others for help. Friends and trusted family members may be a good place to start. You can also ask your doctor or healthcare professional for recommendations on therapists in the area.

If you’re looking for a therapist but unsure where to start, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.