Recently I’ve been talking about the connection between our thoughts, feelings, and actions, as well as sharing two forms (the REBT self help form & The Thought Record) that are helpful in reframing negative thought patterns. Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite cognitive distortions: Catastrophizing!

In short, catastrophizing is making something or someone into the worst possible outcome (blowing things extremely out of proportion), which creates stress and anxiety. This distortion can also lead to us identifying a situation as unbearable when, in fact, it is simply frustrating and uncomfortable.  It can be present focused, but is often future focused and causes us to want to quit (or we feel helpless) in the present moment. This distortion can completely change our entire outlook on life, whether it’s ourselves, a situation, or someone else.

While each of us will do this occasionally, some use this distortion far more frequently than others. Here are a few key words to look for: It doesn’t matter, no matter what, horrible, terrible, miserable, intolerable, un-survivable, intolerable, the worst thing ever and phrases that encompass these ideas. Be honest with yourself, though. How many of these things that we catastrophize about really are horrible, miserable, or unsurvivable? If I say that doing dishes is miserable, then what words do I have to use when I’m grieving the death of a friend? Furthermore- will I be at all happy or content with things if I’m catatrophizing? Probably not. We make our lives much more difficult for ourselves when we use these words and phrases. Instead, focus on more realistic words like the following: unfortunate, uncomfortable, less than ideal, frustrating, tolerable, unpleasant,  and phrases that encompass these ideas. 

Once we recognize that we are catastrophizing, it’s time to challenge and change (restructure) these thoughts. Let’s walk through an example of how to do this:

“I hate doing the dishes- it’s just a miserable chore” changes to “I don’t like doing the dishes- it’s unpleasant but tolerable.”

“I know I’m going to do a terrible job in the presentation for work. I always botch things like this” changes to “I may not do a perfect job on this presentation but I an everyone else around me is fallible. I’ll prepare the best I can and that is all I can do”.

“I can’t believe I made that rude comment to my friend. I’m sure she hates me now and wants to end our friendship” becomes “I can’t believe I made that rude comment to my friend. It was a stupid mistake and I will apologize and hope that she can hear me out.”

As I’ve said before in previous posts, the goal isn’t to make things sound perfect. It’s about being honest, realistic, and balanced in our thought patterns while putting positive statements about ourselves and others into our vocabulary.

To think about: How does catastrophizing affect your behaviors and relationships with others? How might your life improve if you decreased the number of catastrophizing words that you use? What do you gain from catastrophizing? (attention? sympathy? feeling like that’s the only way that someone will believe you?) How does catastrophizing hold you back from being your best?