3 Steps to Stop Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic Thinking

When Miranda Pearman-Maday and her wife actress Raven-Symoné visited Amen Clinics for an episode of Scan My Brain, Maday opened up about having lifelong anxiety. “I have a catastrophic mentality,” Maday tells Dr. Daniel Amen in the episode. For Maday, this has led to a life filled with fearful and anxious thoughts. “Oftentimes, my thoughts are not based in reality or not in what’s really happening,” she says.

Like Maday, we all experience exaggerated negative thinking from time to time. For some people, however, catastrophizing is an everyday occurrence that fuels anxiety, depression, worry, and other issues.

We all experience exaggerated negative thinking from time to time. For some people, however, catastrophizing is an everyday occurrence that fuels anxiety, depression, worry, and other issues. Click To Tweet

WHAT IS CATASTROPHIC THINKING?

Catastrophizing is a term that was introduced in the 1960s and later popularized by psychiatrist Aaron Beck. This form of cognitive distortion occurs when you anticipate something bad happening, and as a consequence, predict that something even worse will take place. It is a type of automatic negative thought (ANT) that can ruin your day. Here are some examples of catastrophic thinking:

  • I’m probably going to lose my job, and I’ll never find another one, so I’ll end up homeless.
  • My spouse had a biopsy. I’m sure it’s going to be cancer, and then it’s going to be a slow and painful death.
  • I had a fight with my significant other. Now they’re going to leave me, and I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.
  • If I go on the sailing excursion and there’s a storm, we’ll capsize, and then I’ll be lost at sea for days and eaten by a shark.

Do you see how one negative thought leads to another even bigger negative notion? These are “fortune-telling” ANTs that breed more ANTs. They multiply and eventually, the ANTs infest your mind.

Most people who think this way don’t even realize they’re doing it. They take the littlest problems and turn them into major disasters waiting to happen. It can hold you back from When you’re constantly on edge expecting something awful to occur, it makes you feel stressed, depressed, and anxious.

CATASTROPHIC THINKING AND THE BRAIN

Every time you have a thought, it causes the brain to release chemicals. Happy thoughts trigger the release of feel-good chemicals. Negative thoughts prompt the release of chemicals that make you feel bad. Catastrophizing triggers a cascade of feel-bad neurochemicals.

In addition, when catastrophic thinking occurs regularly, it strengthens neural pathways and causes it to become a habit. Each time you think something bad will happen then imagine an even more terrible consequence, you teach your brain to repeat the process.

Brain imaging research shows that people who tend to predict the worst typically have abnormal activity in certain areas of the brain. A 2009 study on people with chronic pain who catastrophize revealed heightened activity in brain regions associated with emotions related to pain. This research also noted changes in the hypothalamus and pituitary responses.

At Amen Clinics, which has built the world’s largest database of brain scans related to behavior, SPECT scans show that people who catastrophize often have overactivity in the brain’s emotional and fear centers.

CATASTROPHIZING AND MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

The brain activity abnormalities seen in Amen Clinics patients who engage in catastrophic thinking are also consistent with those who have anxiety or depression. Scientific research supports these clinical findings and shows that having catastrophic thoughts rolling around in your head is associated with certain psychiatric disorders.

For example, a 2014 study in Child Psychiatry & Human Development analyzed thinking patterns in 2,802 teenagers and concluded that teens who catastrophize are more likely to have anxiety. And in a 2012 study, researchers noted a connection in children between catastrophic thinking and depression and anxiety. The association with depressive disorder was especially high in kids at 3rd-grade level or younger.

Other scientific research has noted a link between catastrophizing and fatigue. In a systematic review in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, researchers analyzed 14 previous studies and found a significant relationship between this unhealthy thinking pattern and fatigue in 13 of them. This isn’t surprising as fatigue is a common symptom associated with depression.

This type of thinking can also develop after being exposed to some form of trauma. When a traumatic event occurs, it can make you think that the worst can happen. In an effort to be prepared for the worst or to avoid it, you may begin actively playing out worst-case scenarios in your mind. A 2019 study that looked at 79,438 active-duty soldiers found that those who had experienced a higher number of combat stressors combined with engaging in the most catastrophic thinking were 274% more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

3 STEPS TO STOP CATASTROPHIZING

1. Think about your thinking.

To end excessive worrying, you must first become aware that you’re doing it. If you find yourself ruminating on negative thoughts and predictions, make it a practice to write them down.

2. Notice your triggers.

Take note of what may have preceded your downward spiral of thinking. Were you hungry or tired? Did you drink alcohol or have a fight with your significant other? Avoiding triggers can help. Knowing that they may set you off can help you be ready to combat catastrophic thoughts can recognize them for what they are.

3. Challenge your thoughts.

Ask yourself if the end-of-days thoughts you’re having are true. Make a list of any evidence that refutes them. Also, make a list of any evidence that the opposite is more true.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

17 Comments »

  1. I had no idea there was a name for this and that it has been around since the 1960s. You’re accurate that it follows a traumatic event or a sustained series of traumatic events. Most suffer in silence and struggle to blend in with a hostile world.

    Comment by Terry — October 18, 2021 @ 3:28 AM

  2. Is it possible to have an analysis done by your clinic if I live in Australia and if so could you send me information, process and costs please.

    Im interested for me and my daughter.

    Thank you

    Comment by Kim Edwards — October 18, 2021 @ 4:26 AM

  3. ,,,This is a fantastic article ! I have been a fan of Dr. Amen ever since I discovered him on PBS many years ago. His material is so welldone and easy for a lay person to understand. Someday I hope to meet him in person.

    Comment by William Humphrey — October 18, 2021 @ 5:11 AM

  4. Using TEAM CBT therapy developed by Dr David Burns will hell alleviate catastrophic thinking. Using the mood journals he provides you identify the negative thoughts, then the cognitive distortions driving those thoughts, and finally positive alternative thoughts that blow the negative ones away.

    Comment by Regan Jager — October 18, 2021 @ 5:13 AM

  5. This describes me exactly. I have somehow trained my brain to expect and prepare for the worse case scenario in every situation. Are there any treatments that will address this over-activity in the brain, besides being cognitive of the ANTS? I feel that I need something more than just writing down my negative thoughts to get me over the hump. It’s a terrible habit to try and break, and I would love to hear of any additional treatments that can be helpful.

    Several years ago, I traveled to your clinic in California with a loved one that received a brain scan to help diagnose bipolar disease. I would love to see what my brain scan would reveal after suffering from treatment resistant depression and anxiety for many years, but it just isn’t feasible at the moment. Thank you for the incredibly important work that you do!

    Comment by Lanise B — October 18, 2021 @ 6:43 AM

  6. This article is excellent and so true. The problem is that it is so difficult to get rid of negative thoughts. I find myself amazed every morning when I wake up that I have made it to another day. This was not the case when I was working (57 years in special education), but when I retired and had little or nothing to do each day the negative thoughts became more and more persistent. I also find that without a job I have little to no energy so there is not much to think about. I am over 85 years old and this is just becoming increasingly difficult. How I would love to wake up in the morning and feel energtic and ready “to go” liker I used to, but that is not happenig.

    Comment by Lois Meyer — October 18, 2021 @ 7:17 AM

  7. And, what supplements could also aid someone with this type of thinking?

    Comment by Val Zimmerman — October 18, 2021 @ 8:22 AM

  8. This was a helpful article! I have been a long time sufferer of catastrophic thinking and have more recently been dealing with extreme, and mysterious fatigue. It was eye opening to realize that the two may be connected. Great post!

    Comment by Anna — October 18, 2021 @ 9:36 AM

  9. Negative thinking, worst case scenarios have also been a big part of my life. I believe it was my upbringing…to long to explain. One of the factors was fear. I lived in fear as a child and always felt, since I was the oldest that I needed to protect my siblings. I grew up sadly in a flight or fight mode. Unfortunately, the situation was exacerbated by my mothers religious beliefs.
    It has been about four years now that I have been able to release some of this way of thinking. I now look to see the glass half FULL instead of half empty. I read many self help books and my spiritual journey has alleviated some of this torture. I still have much to work on but I do a morning journal everyday where I wake up and I write down 5 things I am grateful for. It has so helped me be calmer and focused without all the negative thinking of the worst case scenario. It is a battle I deal with almost everyday but it has been so much easier for me. I thank you all for sharing. Have a beautiful, positive and safe day!!

    Comment by Blanca — October 18, 2021 @ 9:39 AM

  10. I have done this my whole life! I learned to be “prepared for the worst” by my mother. Later in life, when I was diagnosed with severe depression, I found that at times, I spiral down into very negative thoughts. Had no idea there was a name for this. Is there a place to read more about it and ways to treat it?

    Comment by Sheryl Tomlinson — October 18, 2021 @ 2:41 PM

  11. I am a caregiver for an 87 year old, she is my mother-in-law, She only knows negativity, she has many health issues mostly physical but lately is showing signs of mental decline. I am finding difficulty in how to best deal with this as it is new for me. Any recommendations are helpful,

    Comment by Karen Post — October 18, 2021 @ 2:44 PM

  12. What a wonderful article. I have this catastrophic thinking each and every day. It wears me down. It really hit me when I would get in my old car and the ” what if’s” would go into overdrive. No pun intended. I have no car now yet the ” what if’s” are still there. I lost my job due to a work injury and that made it easy for the employer to let me go. I know my age was a factor too . Having turned 70 last year I always wanted to get my brain scanned. I like to probe the meaning of things and if I had my brain scanned it would help me figure out a lot about me.

    Comment by Linda — October 18, 2021 @ 11:16 PM

  13. I enjoyed reading about this topic of Catastrophic thinking. My mother has had an awful childhood and i fear has not had the mental capacity to condition her way of thinking on an adult level. She did not raise me but i know neither of us had any form of coddling growing up.
    As an adult she LIVES in the land of Negative. She keeps herself in constant stress promoting fatigue, worry, illness and pains. All the thoughts she has she feels that they are absolute fact because it can be no other way. I wrack my brain trying to help her see things differently…but to no avail. It is truly like trying to condition a child and can be very frustrating. I feel bad for her and do my very best to not let her toxicity linger on me. I know diet can be an additive to this behaviour and its not a very healthy one because she lives on a fixed income and i cannot always help.
    We live across the continent from each other so there’s that also. I want to go visit in the coming year as its been about 8 yrs since we’ve seen one another. I am a bit afraid too because i personally cannot handle the “darkness”…
    Any suggestions for me on how to handle this like what i have read here?? Thanks!

    Comment by Jeanine Klinedinst — October 19, 2021 @ 6:11 AM

  14. I found through personal experience that when you become overwhelmed by the catastrophic ideation and ANTS, the brain starts the shutdown process. At this point, you cannot function as the body is too fatigued and you begin having thoughts of suicide. Soon after, you start to believe death is the only option. Death becomes preferable to the current situation even if you don’t truly want to die. This is especially true if you are sleep deprived.

    Comment by MJ — October 19, 2021 @ 8:00 AM

  15. Hello Linda, thank you for reaching out. We would be happy to reach out to you directly with more information regarding scheduling an appointment at one of our nine clinics in the US. We look forward to speaking with you soon

    Comment by Amen Clinics — October 19, 2021 @ 11:40 AM

  16. I really love this website.

    Comment by Haley Newberry — October 19, 2021 @ 9:28 PM

  17. How does this differ from OCD and the obsessive negative thoughts that go with it. Would a medication like Prozac be helpful?

    Comment by Gretchen C Johnson — October 21, 2021 @ 4:11 PM

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