Managing Your Catastrophic Thinking Guide

7 min read
Mar 2, 2024
Managing Your Catastrophic Thinking Guide

Coping with catastrophic thinking can be quite challenging. Life can easily feel far too big and out of control when you're coping with worries about your physical safety, the instability of your relationships, or the possibility of financial difficulties.

On the other hand, the worst-case scenarios, like getting hurt, going bankrupt, or losing a loved one, can seem inevitable. Examples of catastrophic thinking include believing that a person will always be alone after a vehicle accident, that all relationships are destined to end, or that committing even a small error at work would result in a dismissal and eventual homelessness.

When someone begins to accept the worst-case scenario as inevitable, their physical and mental health may deteriorate and they may avoid important life goals. This type of thinking can appear reasonable at the time; frequently, it is influenced by the individual's unique brain physiology and past experiences.

It's crucial to get professional assistance if you're having catastrophic thinking so they can help you control these thoughts. However, controlling these catastrophic ideas can become difficult for certain people, regardless of whether they have a history of trauma or a condition like ADHD.

In these cases, more conventional therapeutic procedures might not work as well. Here are some tips for locating the assistance that will be most beneficial to you.

A trauma-informed approach can be essential

People who have experienced trauma in the past will carry these unpleasant experiences into their thoughts. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner Kate Hanselman of Thriveworks says, "Our brains are trying to keep us safe." "If you have experienced trauma in the past, your brain will imagine the worst to keep you alive."

A trauma-informed approach can be essential
A trauma-informed approach can be essential

In this situation, a traumatized individual will be viewing future events through the prism of their past experiences, making the worst-case scenario appear like the most likely and reasonable conclusion.

If you have experienced trauma, the first thing you should do is make sure your surroundings are safe, which can include getting out of a dangerous scenario. Because of how commonplace these experiences have become, some people might not even realize that they can be classified as traumatic.

Finding a way to move to a safe environment should be the top priority for anyone who may still be in a dangerous situation where trauma is still present.

The emphasis should only turn to trauma processing once the person is safe. This usually entails figuring out how to reconcile the lived experiences with your current worldview while allowing you to go on with your life.

According to Hanselman, "trauma resets our baseline, to either say the world is bad and unsafe or I am bad and unsafe." "Many trauma-focused modalities take a different approach to understanding ourselves or the world."

Some of the therapeutic modalities that can help with trauma include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, which uses eye movements to help patients reprocess their traumatic memories; cognitive processing therapy, which helps patients work through their thoughts and beliefs about a traumatic event; and prolonged exposure therapy, which works on gradually exposing a patient to their fears so they can work on managing their reactions.

A therapist may use approaches from several therapies, depending on the specific needs of the patient, including the sort of trauma they encountered and whether it was a one-time occurrence or a protracted exposure to ongoing trauma.

Hanselman states, "The tools are very similar, but what's going to differ is how they're implemented and the support for the implementation."

Disorders like OCD, ADHD, or autism may call for a different strategy

Managing catastrophic thinking can also be complicated by an illness like OCD, ADHD, or autism. Catastrophic thinking can be exacerbated by any of these factors, and treating it can become extremely challenging.

OCD, ADHD disorders
OCD, ADHD disorders

The catastrophic thought process will be made worse by neurodivergent differences, such as ADHD in particular, according to licensed psychologist and associate director of behavior modification and expertise Andrew Kahn.

A person's ability to organize, prioritize, and complete complicated tasks is impacted when they have an executive functioning disorder such as ADHD. This impairment can therefore have a variety of negative effects, such as receiving poor grades because of difficulties maintaining organization and attention, losing one's work because of difficulties effectively completing challenging projects, or having to cope with relationship problems as a result of being forgetful.

There is a risk that these outcomes will occur, which can result in destructive thought habits that are difficult to change. According to Kahn, "mood functioning will take over your life if you develop maladaptive patterns for extended periods of time." It is inevitable that you will remain in this disastrous condition.

The first step in treating someone who suffers from catastrophic thinking and has any of these diseases is to acquire a correct diagnosis and therapy, since this will help reduce the tendency toward catastrophic thinking. "The earlier and better we diagnose you, the more tools we are going to work on building if you have ADHD, autism, or OCD," Kahn stated.

The next step will be to seek the assistance of a mental health professional who is knowledgeable with the ways in which these problems might contribute to catastrophic thinking as well as the kinds of therapy techniques that can be helpful.

Alternative therapeutic techniques 

Generally speaking, cognitive behavioral therapy is the main treatment for catastrophic thinking. It places a strong emphasis on confronting and controlling catastrophic thoughts. This strategy might not be effective for all types of people, though.

For instance, attempting to engage and rationalize with catastrophic ideas after experiencing a big trauma (which is a real-life version of the worst-case scenario) may prove to be damaging or at best unproductive. Kahn claims, "That's one of the traps in cognitive behavioral therapy."

A person who has already experienced the worst may find that thinking or rationalizing about the trauma won't make them feel any less distressed about it, and it may even undermine their actual experiences. Alternatively, they may need to employ alternative strategies.

A such tactic is mindfulness-based training, in which an individual learns to identify and manage their catastrophic thoughts in a way that permits them to continue living their life. There is nothing that can be done, so Kahn says, "I'm going to treat the catastrophic thought like a balloon flying through the sky, where I can't reach the string to bring it down."

By doing this, "It gives me the opportunity to practice accepting the idea and the experience for what they are, without having to contest, debate, question, or attempt to disprove it." The relationship can eventually end if I can let it persist and it doesn't negatively impact my experience.

This tactic is frequently employed in acceptance and commitment therapy, which focuses on developing forward-thinking plans and ways to accept circumstances that are beyond a person's control.

Frequently asked questions

What is catastrophic thinking?

Catastrophic thinking is the tendency to believe that the worst possible outcome will happen in any situation.

What are some examples of catastrophic thinking?

Believing you will lose your job after making a small mistake, or thinking you will be alone forever after a breakup.

How can catastrophic thinking be harmful?

It can lead to anxiety, depression, and avoidance of important life goals.

What are some tips for coping with catastrophic thinking?

  • Seek professional help, especially if you have a history of trauma or a mental health condition.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques to observe your thoughts without judgment.
  • Develop coping mechanisms like acceptance and commitment therapy.

How can trauma contribute to catastrophic thinking?

Trauma can make you view the world as unsafe, leading to the belief that bad things will happen.

What is the first step if you have experienced trauma?

Ensure your safety and get out of any dangerous situations.

What are some therapies that can help with trauma?

EMDR, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy.

How can ADHD, OCD, or autism complicate coping with catastrophic thinking?

These conditions can make it harder to manage stress and negative thoughts.

What is the first step in treating someone with these conditions and catastrophic thinking?

Obtain an accurate diagnosis and begin treating the underlying illness.

What are some alternative therapeutic techniques besides CBT?

Mindfulness-based training and acceptance and commitment therapy.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

A common therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns.

Why might CBT not be effective for everyone?

For some, especially those who have experienced trauma, it can be unhelpful to engage with and rationalize catastrophic thoughts.


This should not be used in place of expert medical advice. If you are struggling with catastrophic thinking, please reach out to a mental health professional for help.