Is catastrophizing ruining your life?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

What is catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is a way of looking at life, always searching for the “worst-case” possibilities. In recovery circles, this can be described as having a “magical magnify mind.” There are times when considering the worst possible alternative can protect you from bad life outcomes, other times it can make you miserable. Adopting catastrophizing as your default way of thinking has been tied to pessimism and many mental illnesses.

Wikipedia defines catastrophizing as “Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.”

Catastrophizing and mental health.

Ellis (1962) created the term ‘‘catastrophizing’’ to describe a tendency to magnify a perceived threat and overestimate the seriousness of its potential consequences.

Beck in his work on cognitive behavioral therapy created a list of “cognitive distortions,” which are factors in creating and maintaining some mental illnesses. Recently cognitive therapists, have begun referring to these thinking patterns as “unhelpful thoughts.”

One of these unhelpful thoughts is magnification, a cognitive process in which people who are depressed create exaggerated beliefs which bias their thinking in a negative direction (Beck 1963, 1964.)

When you don’t know what causes bad events, the consequences are magnified. Catastrophizing is an unhelpful way some people use to try to find the causes of bad events in their life and to try to prevent future unpleasant consequences.

Other definitions of catastrophizing.

Catastrophizing involves focusing on the difficulty and negative aspects of a stressor. Catastrophizing is envisaging the worst results of a negative event.

Catastrophizing is an automatic “what if” questioning style, causing an individual to iterate about a particular problem and perceive possible outcomes as threatening (Kendall & Ingram, 1987; Vasey & Borkovec, 1992).

Mental illnesses are connected to catastrophizing.

Many of the things we call mental illnesses lies on a continuum from mild to severe. It’s quite common for people with one mental illness to also show symptoms of other mental illnesses. How a specific mental illness will affect you is also the result of the interaction between that illness and you. Your life experiences, your genetics, your personality, and how you go about thinking about the world, all play roles in your risk for having a particular mental illness and your path towards recovery from that illness. Below is a brief review of some of the research about the connections between catastrophizing and mental illnesses.

Chronic pain is made worse by Catastrophizing.

Many studies have found a connection between catastrophizing and disability from chronic pain. Catastrophic thinking in the pain field was defined as ‘‘an exaggerated negative orientation toward pain stimuli and pain experience’’ (Spevak and Buckenmaier 2011.) Focusing on your pain seems to magnify it. Catastrophizing about your pain, imagining all the possible connections between your pain and serious illness, increases the pain’s impact on your life

Stanford Pain Management Center conducted a pilot program that involved a 2-hour class on pain and pain catastrophizing. The class significantly reduced patients catastrophizing about pain. I have to wonder if more information about mental and physical issues wouldn’t reduce people’s worry and result in significantly less catastrophizing.

The connection between chronic pain and catastrophizing is especially strong in the research on fibromyalgia. “Several factors of pain appraisal contribute to the pain experience. The most outstanding ones are pain catastrophizing, fear of pain, and vigilance to pain. In FM patients, pain catastrophizing has been associated with pain intensity and impairment” (Mart´ınez, S´anchez, Mir´o, Medina, & Lami,2011.)

“Among the most widely researched psychological factors in recent years, pain catastrophizing has shown consistent and robust associations with acute and chronic clinical pain as well as experimental pain responses” (Fillingim.)

Panic disorder is fueled by catastrophizing.

“People with panic disorder misinterpret their physical symptoms as catastrophic and indicative of imminent danger, leading to panic attacks” (Ottaviani and Beck 1987.)

Phobias may be created and maintained by catastrophizing.

The pattern of jumping to the most negative consequences, catastrophizing, is common in social phobia, agoraphobia, and specific phobia. In social phobia, people expect to be judged negatively and are on the alert for clues of rejection. This can result in being socially awkward and creating the social rejection they fear. Agoraphobia, the fear of the marketplace, or the fear of being out in public, is characterized by a fear that something bad will happen and the person will not be able to escape or get help. Specific phobias frequently involve overestimating the chances the thing that scares you will be present or will harm you.

Somatic Symptoms and Related Disorders are connected to catastrophizing.

In the past, this was often called Health Anxiety Disorder. Recently this was reorganized and is now considered a group of disorders. Somatic Symptoms Disorder (300.82) involves a focus on one or two symptoms that the patient comes to believe indicate they have a serious undiagnosed medical illness. Illness Anxiety Disorder (300.7) is a constant preoccupation and worry that you will contract a serious illness. Catastrophic thinking plays a role both in creating and in maintaining all the health-related anxiety disorders. This group of disorders frequently involves intrusive, distressing images of being sick or dying.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder involves catastrophizing.

OCD has two main components, intrusive thoughts, and the need to perform rituals to prevent those imagined consequences. These intrusive thoughts are primarily catastrophic in nature. When you continue to imagine worst-case, dire consequences which can only be prevented by your performing some ritual, it becomes hard to resist the impulses.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is connected to catastrophic thinking.

Catastrophic thinking appears to contribute to the creation and worsening of all the trauma and stressor-related disorders. Having experienced a traumatic event, you are more likely to imagine similar events occurring again. Constantly checking your environment for potential danger and then catastrophizing about what you see appears to contribute to the maintenance of PTSD.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. People who habitually practice catastrophic thinking are at increased risk of developing PTSD should they experience a trauma (Bryant, Guthrie, 2005.)

Some studies have reported a connection between catastrophizing and fatigue.

Catastrophizing is often observed in anxiety.

“Chronic worry is known to be a feature associated with most of the anxiety disorders and most specifically with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)” (Brown, Antony, &Barlow,1992).

According to the most recent diagnostic categorization, the cardinal diagnostic feature of GAD is “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation) … which the individual finds difficult to control” (APA, 2000, p. 476).

Catastrophizing creates Hopelessness Depression.

Hopeless depression is not a specific diagnosis. Counselors see a great many people who have lost hope. Hopelessness and a sense that the future will never be any better are common symptoms reported by people suffering from depression. Even before it reaches the level of clinical depression, a lack of hope and catastrophizing greatly increase the risk that today’s problems will become tomorrow’s depression.

“Catastrophizing (consistently inferring catastrophic consequences resulting from a negative event), has been posited as a specific risk factor for depression” (Abramson et al. 1989).

Paranoia and catastrophizing.

The emotional regulation strategies “blaming others and catastrophizing were positively correlated with paranoia and anxiety” (Westermann, et al., 2013.)

“Worry is a significant concern for patients with paranoia. Worry in paranoia is likely to be caused by similar mechanisms as worry in emotional disorders. The results support the recent trial findings that standard techniques for treating worry in anxiety, suitably modified, are applicable for patients with paranoia” (Startup, et al., 2016.)

Poor sleep is caused by Catastrophizing.

Many research studies have shown direct connections between rumination, catastrophizing, and impaired sleep. Here are a couple of quotes from the research literature.

“Poor sleep quality, including difficulties falling asleep and waking during the night, commonly occur in early adolescence” (Carskadon, 2010).

“Up to 40% of adolescents experience some form of sleep difficulties at some point during adolescence” (Meltzer & Mindell, 2006)

Rumination magnifies your problems.

If your thinking style involves catastrophizing, looking for the worst-case scenarios, try to limit the time you spend considering alternatives. Unfortunately, people who catastrophize also tend to ruminate, going over and over the same material finding ever-increasing awful consequences. If catastrophize and ruminating are destroying your mental health, consider professional help before the problems of daily living become a serious mental illness.

More information about this topic and related subjects is found under Psychology

David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.)  Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel

Thinking mistakes you are making.

Is your thinking full of bad habits?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Is your thinking full of bad habits?

It is easy to drift into bad habits. Do something a certain way a few times and that becomes the default setting for your brain. After that, you need to put conscious effort into responding in a different way.

Many times people drift into bad thought habits and from then on having unhelpful thoughts pop into your mind becomes your usual way of thinking. Just because this is the way you always think about things does not make those thoughts true. Your bad thought habits may be making your problems worse and interfering with your having a happy life.

There are 11 ways your thinking may be full of bad habits.

1. Thinking it is all about you, personalizing.

If you walk into the room and people laugh you might think they were all talking about you. When someone is short or curt with you, do you think they are being disrespectful? Many times in life when someone ignores us or is less than helpful it has nothing to do with us. One of the great lessons of growing up is that most of the time other people are just too preoccupied with their own lives and problems to give you a second thought.

2. Your magnifying mind blows things out of proportion.

When you think about what could happen, do you imagine the worst possible thing? If your mind can turn a minor inconvenience into the end of the world you have trained your thinking to be a magic magnifying mind.

You went on a date, you liked that other person and they said they would give you a call. But the next day comes and goes and no call. You are now convinced that they will never call, that you will never meet that special someone, and that you will live the rest of your life alone. When they call an hour later you are now so bummed out from ruminating about this life alone you just don’t want to talk to them and you do not answer the phone.

There are lots of variations to this thought pattern. It rains for a few minutes and you are sure it will flood, you get stuck behind a truck and are sure you will be late to work and get fired. In each scenario, your mind leaps from a small problem to a happy-life threatening outcome.

3. Minimizing, discounting the positive.

You got ninety-nine questions out of a hundred right, but you are upset about the question you missed. Some people find it hard to take credit for the things they do well. The underlying thought here is that you should be perfect and that anything less is not acceptable.

If you can’t take a compliment, or you find it hard to accept credit for what you have done, you may have trained your brain to ignore anything you did well and focus only on the mistakes of life. This can result in a pretty bleak, discouraging way of looking at things.

4. Either Or, Black and White thinking, means you are either a winner or a loser.

High achievers are at extra risk for this one. If you have trained your brain to go for being the best at everything it can be hard to accept the size of the achievement that a second-place might be.

Do not let your brain cheat you out of enjoying an accomplishment by insisting you have to be better than everyone else to be worthwhile.

5. Taking events out of context.

So you get the job but all you remember from the process is that you did not have a good answer for one of the questions. One criticism from your partner becomes they “never” like anything you do. You are on vacation for two weeks but the thing you most remember is the traffic jam on the way out-of-town that first day.

If when you think back on past events all you can remember are the rough spots you are falling into making too much of the small things and forgetting the big ones.

6. Jumping to conclusions.

He didn’t return my text right away so that means he does not want to talk to me. You feel a lump somewhere and don’t go to the doctor convinced you must have cancer and only days to live. Many people have developed the habit of jumping over all the possible good outcomes and landing in a pit of pain.

7. Overgeneralizing leads you to bad places.

“I did not get this job” becomes “I will never get a job.” That thought can get you so worked up that you stop looking for work. Believing because something did not go your way once that means you will never achieve your objective, can become the greatest obstacle to progress.

8. Self-Blame, believing you made a mistake so you are stupid, no good.

This mental and verbal self-abuse does not motivate you to work harder. Beating yourself up leads to feelings of helplessness and giving up. You shouldn’t accept this kind of treatment from others. Don’t abuse yourself this way.

9. Are you that good at mind-reading?

Do you tell yourself, “When he does that it means — If she loved me she would know.”

Believing others should know what you want and need and then thinking less of them for not reading your mindsets your relationships up for failure. Believing that others should be able to read your mind and anticipate your needs without your voicing them creates misunderstandings.

10. Comparing up, that model or star is better than me.

Comparing yourself to others sets you up for disappointment. There are always people who have more friends on social media and who make more money. To feel better about yourself stop comparing. Especially do not compare yourself in your gardening outfit to someone walking down the red carpet.

11. Catastrophizing is thinking the worst possible outcome will happen.

Do you think “he is late, he probably got in an accident and died?” When things happen that are not to your liking is your first thought that this absolutely must not happen? Catastrophizing is looking for the worst possible outcome and then mentally rehearsing that thought in your head until it demolishes your sanity.

If you are practicing any of these bad thought habits work with someone on changing these unhelpful thoughts to more adaptive ones.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel