Catastrophizing- What It Is and How To Stop It?

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We all have at least one person in our lives who makes a big deal over nothing.  This is the person who literally cries over the proverbial spilled milk.  You tend to feel badly for this person when they get themselves all worked up, but on the other hand, you are fascinated by them at the same time.  How do these people successfully navigate through life when they fall apart at every bump in the road map?

A few years ago, I was in the grocery store when I happened to overhear a couple talking about what to make for dinner that evening.  They excitedly agreed on a rotisserie chicken and made their way over to the counter.  As the husband picked up a chicken to closely examine it, the plastic top popped off and the rotisserie chicken (and all of its accompanying juices) plummeted to the floor in all of its glory.  Immediately the husband went into panic mode, while the wife found humor in the situation and started to laugh.  The husband looked at her panicked and incredulously said, “How can you be laughing– this is a crisis!”

This story has always stuck with me because this stranger literally equated a rotisserie chicken falling to the floor to a crisis situation.  This situation is the perfect example of catastrophizing.  Catastrophizing is an illogical thought that causes a person to think that a situation is life-changing and horrific when it is really small and insignificant.  Catastrophizing can either occur in the present moment, or can be applied to the future, as a person may anticipate and envision the worst type of disasters descending upon them.

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Catastrophizing can be debilitating and can jip a person out of enjoying life and their day to day activities.  The anticipation of things going wrong in their personal, academic, or occupational pursuits can cripple them.  A high school student who fails a test may assume that they will never get into college.  A person who arrives five minutes late on a blind date may assume that they blew the date before they even walk through the door.  Catastrophizing can lead to feelings of hopelessness, self-doubt, and low self-confidence.

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If you happen to be an offender of catastrophizing, do not despair, as there are several ways to stop it.  As with most behaviors, if you are unaware that they are occurring, you will be unable to change them.  Thus, the first step in reducing catastrophizing is to become aware that it is happening.  You need to identify when you catastrophize, how often you do it, and what you tend to catastrophize over.  Ultimately, catastrophizing is disguised as negative irrational thoughts.  Once you begin to understand your tendency and patterns, you can begin to focus on changing them and replacing them with more positive statements.

Whenever a catastrophizing thought rears its ugly head, make sure that your internal self talk combats it with questions to verify the accuracy.  If a student fails a test, is it really going to prevent them from getting to college?  After all, it is just one test.  If a person arrives five minutes late to a blind date, is the date destined for disaster?  Perhaps not, especially if there is a good reason for the tardiness.  After questioning the thought, replace it with an assertive and positive statement.  If a student fails a test or if a person arrives several minutes late to a blind date, they can assure themselves that one test or a few minutes is not going to dictate their future.

It is a process to stop castastrophizing and will not be resolved overnight.  Be prepared to fight negative and irrational thoughts with positive ones.  As you combat these thoughts, your tendency to catastrophize will become less and less as time goes on.  I sometimes wonder what became of the couple from the “rotisserie crisis”, as I affectionately like to call it.  If the rotisserie incident is the worst “crisis” that this man will ever endure, he is one lucky man.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.