It was Friday afternoon, and I had just sent out an application for a job I really wanted.
Later on that weekend, I took a look at the job description again.
It turns out I had got the job COMPLETELY wrong. I misinterpreted what was involved in the role and had written my cover letter in a way that demonstrated I clearly didn’t understand what was involved (even though I had explicitly stated in my cover letter that I did).
Luckily, it was on a hiring platform. I withdrew my application, updated my cover letter, and sent it off again.
Once I did, the thoughts started to flood in.
“What if they see that I had applied and withdrew my application? Will they think I’m incompetent?”
“They must have seen my first email, read it, and already established that I have no idea what I’m talking about. This second email is just reinforcing that for them.”
“The hiring manager knows some people I have worked with before.”
“This is going to get out to everyone, and other people will hear about the mistake I made and my lack of attention to detail.”
“I am never going to be considered for another job again, with this company or any company where this hiring manager works.”
Okay—I’ll be honest. I didn’t actually think the last one.
But I could see that if I kept going down this rabbit hole, that was where my brain would end up: in the worst possible scenario of events. Over time, this thinking can chip away at your mental health, leaving you feeling anxious, depressed, or too paralyzed to make decisions.
Catastrophizing is something we all do from time to time, but it’s far from healthy—and far from productive.
In this post, we’ll look at what catastrophizing is, how it affects us, and practical ways to cope with anxiety and not let it run your life.
Okay, but what exactly is catastrophizing?
You know the saying “making mountains out of molehills”?
That basically sums up catastrophizing. You take an event and spiral down into a sequence of events that ends with the worst possible outcome.
Catastrophizing presents itself in two forms: present-oriented and future-oriented.
Present-oriented catastrophizing occurs when you have a belief that something bad is happening right now—even if there’s no evidence to support that claim. For example, you might have a small bump on your arm, but your brain instantly jumps to thinking it’s monkeypox without any medical proof.
Then there’s future-oriented catastrophizing. This is the belief that something terrible is going to happen in the future as a result of actions or events that are happening in the present.
Let’s say you fail one of your college term papers. Rather than shrugging it off and evaluating how to do better next time, your train of thought could go along the lines of:
“I failed that test.”
“If I fail another test, I might not pass this year.”
It’s not just the little stuff either. There are a lot of huge events that literally can make us feel like the world is ending, from the fact that two pandemics are going on simultaneously to the war in Ukraine, the escalating climate crisis, rising inflation…you get the picture.
The problem is that catastrophizing can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you bomb a presentation at work, you might begin to worry that you’re going to slip up on other presentations. Over time, this fear could cause you to get more nervous during presentations, and that fear could cause you to lose confidence at work, which could impact the way your colleagues perceive you—despite the fact that you may have been crushing it at your job to begin with.
Why do we catastrophize?
Here’s the thing: It’s not your fault if you catastrophize.
A number of different causes can lead to catastrophic thinking, but most often, it occurs because of one of three reasons:
You’re in an ambiguous situation
Ambiguity is the prime culprit for anxiety. When a situation or communication is vague, it opens the door to a world of doom-and-gloom thinking.
For example, say you get a message from your manager saying, “I need to speak with you.” With no other context, your brain will start running through all the different possibilities of what it could be—and inevitably, because we’re human, it’ll instantly jump to the worst-case scenario.
It’s important to you
Imagine two scenarios.
In the first scenario, a random stranger on the street ignores you when you try to speak to them.
In the second, your best friend ignores you when you try to get in contact with them.
Which one hurts you the most?
For most of us, it’d be the latter for one simple reason: we value our friendships more than we do a relationship with a stranger. That’s why we often tend to catastrophize when it’s something we care about, like with the job we really want or someone we really care about.
The more scared you are of a situation, the more likely you are to overplay it in your head and start catastrophizing.
Think about any time you’ve felt a little bit off-kilter. If you’re anything like me, you would have jumped on Google and started typing in your symptoms, then waited in dread for the word “cancer” to appear. Even if what you’ve had is just a bad head cold, the fear of having a medical condition can cause even the best of us to spiral.
8 ways to stop catastrophizing
If you’re prone to catastrophizing, don’t worry—there are steps you can take to overcome this type of thinking.
Try breathing exercises
Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to combat anxiety and depression, and for good reason. When we start catastrophizing, our heart rate increases, making us even more stressed and prone to panic.
The next time you find your mind spiraling into the abyss, stop and take a few deep breaths. Breathe in and count slowly to five, hold your breath for five, and breathe out for ten. This simple act will help slow your heart rate and make you think more clearly about the situation at hand.
Talk to someone you trust
You know the feeling of doom-scrolling on Twitter? The same thing happens in your brain when you start catastrophizing. One bad thought leads to another…and before you know it, your life is over, the entire world is doomed, and it’s hard to feel positive about anything.
That’s when speaking to someone else can make a huge difference. A friend or loved one might tell you that you’re blowing things way out of proportion or that it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be—giving you some much-needed perspective on the situation.
Move your body
Any time I feel myself catastrophizing, the first thing I do is try to exercise ASAP. When I come back to the problem, it never seems as big as I had made it in my mind.
The next time everything seems like it’s going down the drain, stop and make an effort to exercise. It doesn’t matter if it’s a leisurely walk outside, some yoga, or a run—just the simple act of moving your body helps you practice mindfulness and put the brakes on any negative emotions you might be feeling in the moment.
Journal when you’re feeling overwhelmed
If you haven’t experimented with journaling yet, it’s time to start. Journaling is an incredible way to let out your thoughts.
Journaling doesn’t mean writing pages and pages of heartfelt words (although you absolutely can do that if you want!). It can be as simple as jotting down how you’re feeling in the moment.
Oftentimes, you’ll find that the very act of writing things down is cathartic in and of itself. If you revisit these entries at a later date, you might even start recognizing patterns in your thinking that you can use to try and combat catastrophic thinking in the future.
Focus on what you can control
It’s easy to look at a situation that’s bigger than you and feel completely helpless. However, this type of thinking isn’t productive—for you or others around you.
Instead of thinking about everything that could go wrong, try to bring your thinking back to what you can do right now. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming meeting with your boss, you could run through different scenarios in your head and practice your responses, so you’re prepared for whatever happens.
When you focus on solutions, you flip your thinking from catastrophic to constructive. And if you have no control over the situation and can’t think of any solutions, it might be a sign that it’s time to let it go.
Challenge your thoughts
Let’s be honest: that little voice in the back of your mind is HARD to control. It’s tough not to take everything you think as a fact, although your thoughts are just that: thoughts and opinions.
Next time you catch yourself predicting the worst-case scenario, stop and ask yourself these questions:
Is this actually true right now? What are the facts?
Is the worst-case scenario really that bad?
What are some potential positive outcomes that could come from this situation?
Remember that even the worst will pass
So, your worst fears have been realized. What then?
You’ll deal with it and move on.
Think back to a time when something bad happened to you. Regardless of what it was, the fact of the matter is that you got through it, and you’re here today. Even if you lose your job, endure a bad breakup, lose a friendship, or fail that class, you’ll find a way to come out stronger on the other side.
When you reflect on tough times that you’ve had in the past, it serves as a solid reminder that you can and will get through bad situations as they arise.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help
You’ve tried everything, but you can’t stop yourself from catastrophizing. Maybe it’s starting to affect your work, studies, or relationships with others. In that case, it’s worth speaking to a professional, such as a therapist or a psychologist.
A professional can provide you with valuable techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to help reduce instances of catastrophizing. On top of this, they may be able to identify and prescribe medication to manage any anxiety or depression that comes about as a result of these thoughts.
You’re not alone
We all catastrophize at some point or another. But if you find yourself overplaying all the negative scenarios in your head on a daily basis, it’s time to reach out to others in your support network and explore ways to navigate your emotions in the future.
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up. It takes time, patience, and a lot of hard work to reframe your thinking. The journey to stop catastrophizing takes a lifetime—all you can do is show up and try to improve every day.