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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jeff Mandelkorn, PhD

Why Catastrophizing is the WORST Thing Ever

I can remember it like it was yesterday. A newly licensed and practicing psychologist, I was on an upswing in life and growing as a professional and adult over all. And then it came… the letter. I remember seeing it, the crisp white envelope almost sticking out amongst the rest of the junk mail. In the top corner of the envelope, the return address caused my stomach to knot up almost instantly, momentarily frozen where I stood… Internal Revenue Service. Instantly my mind filled with thoughts and images of my professional and personal demise. Am I being audited? Did I do something wrong? What if I don’t have the money they are demanding? What am I going to do? My life is over…

I know, it sounds dramatic. At this point in my professional career I was quite new and still getting acquainted with the ins and out of owning and operating a small business. While I still get some nervousness today, it’s nowhere near what it was then. It felt extremely intense, potentially career ending news… it was catastrophic. Having not yet even opened the letter, I was already imagining the end of a career that had just begun.

Many of the people I work with in counseling can connect with that sense of panic, the sudden spiraling of their thoughts, and feeling less and less in control. Oftentimes the thoughts associated with these moments are focused on the worst case scenario or possibility of a particular situation.

For example, if we are stuck in traffic we might think Now I’ll never get to work. Or if we do poorly on a test or exam we might think This is too hard, I’ll never succeed. Or if we lose a client or have a slow week at work we might think This is it, my business is going to fail and I’ll be left destitute… Or is that just me…

Catastrophization, or catastrophic thinking, is a common component of anxiety. It takes the form of thoughts that could be just about anything: illness, success/failure, overcoming obstacles, achieving our goals. Catastrophic thoughts do have some commonalities:

  • They focus on worst-case scenarios

  • They focus on future events

  • They often elicit strong emotional responses in us

  • They often lack rational or logical supportive evidence

I’m sure the majority of you reading can identify specific examples of catastrophic thinking from your own lives.

Catastrophic thinking prevents us from facing our fears or addressing our problems by making our problems feel bigger than they actually are.

The emphasis here is that the issues feel bigger or more complicated than they actually are. The problems are real, the difficulties and obstacles are real, and your feelings are valid. However, catastrophic thinking skews our thoughts and ignites feelings of fear and worry, ultimately convincing us not to try in the first place, or even self-sabotage.

So then, why do we catastrophize? Why would we want to prevent change?

The work with my therapy clients highlights a few different motivations. A client once described, “If I imagine the worst possible outcome, I can at least be prepared for it.” Another client stated “it’s how I self-sabotage… if I don’t try then I can’t fail.” And yet a third once stated that catastrophic thinking “makes my life seem less terrible.”

While a person’s individual motivation or reasoning might be unique, the outcome is the same: catastrophic thinking prevents change.

Where do we start? First, we build our awareness of the presence and impact of our catastrophic thinking; then, we make a plan for addressing this cognitive distortion. Feeling strong emotions is part of being human, but we can be more aware and more skilled when it comes to how our emotions impact what we think, say, and do. And catastrophic thinking is often a result of anxiety and fear going unchecked.

The feelings will occur, but the spiraling thoughts and arresting panic do not need to follow.

There are specific skills and interventions to help us identify and to challenge our catastrophic thinking. Finding the evidence and putting our thoughts on trial are examples of cognitive skills to unpack catastrophic thoughts.

Likely, our catastrophic thinking has become quite familiar at this point. We all experience “tunnel vision” when it comes to our issues. Speaking with a therapist might be an important part of getting out of that tunnel vision and working through the issue.

If you’d like more information on how I can help you overcome catastrophic thinking or other challenges, reach out for your complimentary consultation at 954-391-5305. I look forward to speaking with you soon and discussing how I can help!

Dr. Jeff Mandelkorn provides counseling for adults at our serene Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs offices. He also offers online counseling for those who reside in Florida via our secure telehealth platform.

For more information on his approach or services, click here.


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