clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
An illustration of a man’s open head. Where his brain should be is smoking machinery and gears. A figure of a person holding a hose shoots water trying to put out the fire. Another holds a screwdriver and climbs a ladder toward the open head. Another figure sits in front of the head on a laptop with a cord plugged into the head’s ear. Getty Images

Filed under:

Are you catastrophizing? Here’s how to stop assuming the worst.

Nine experts weigh in on curbing and diffusing your overly negative thoughts.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

If you’re a person who spends even a minuscule amount of time consuming news of any kind, you may find yourself in a doom spiral: ongoing war, the upcoming presidential election, climate change, the withering of the media. It isn’t just news that can inspire despair. Life is full of anxiety-inducing interactions, high-stakes scenarios, and unavoidable conflicts that can lead to overthinking, hopelessness, and catastrophic thinking.

Catastrophizing is a common thought pattern where you assume the worst possible scenario. If you fail a test, you might believe you’ll never get a job in the future. When the group chat is silent after you initiate plans, you jump to conclusions and take it to mean everyone hates you. Your boss says she wants to talk and you assume you’re getting fired. Catastrophic thinking escalates the most benign interactions into crises. Very often, though, these predictions do not come to fruition.

People catastrophize in order to prepare for these worst-case scenarios. Catastrophic thinking, however, can lead to heightened anxiety, prolonged feelings of physical pain, risk aversion, and less confidence in problem-solving when big issues do arise. “If you find that you are constantly looking for what could go drastically wrong in your life, this could reflect deeper concerns about safety, security, or self-protection,” says Scott Glassman, director of the master of applied positive psychology program at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “This style of thinking can emerge if you’ve experienced an unexpected traumatic event, like a loss or serious injury, or if you grew up in an environment where fears were often amplified and responded to with panic or overprotection.”

Climbing out of the spiral that is catastrophic thinking requires both in-the-moment grounding techniques and big-picture reframing. Focusing on the reality of a situation — and not the story you’re telling yourself — can help blunt the anxiety of catastrophizing, experts say. Here are more therapist-approved tactics to help you avoid catastrophic thinking.

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Catch yourself in the act

“Instead of viewing the [catastrophic] thought as a prediction of the future, you can simply say, ‘This is a catastrophic thought. I’ve had these thoughts before and things have turned out fine.’ Remind yourself of the times that you’ve engaged in catastrophic thinking and survived it. You will survive this one, too.”

Alyssa Mancao, licensed therapist and owner of Alyssa Marie Wellness

Ask yourself pointed questions

“One of my favorite tips for catastrophizing is asking clients, ‘What is the worst thing that could possibly happen?’ and following it up with the powerful question of, ‘Could I survive that?’ Most of the time, we can survive those worst-case scenarios, but our anxiety gets in the way and makes us believe we can’t get through it. When we can slow ourselves down to examine the evidence, I find that we are often in a better place to reason with ourselves and realize that we can get through hard things.”

Samantha Speed, licensed professional counselor

Follow the negative thoughts to see where they lead

“In the midst of catastrophic thinking, there are two options. One is to create a positive thought (change ‘no one likes me’ to ‘some people like me’) and repeat it. The other is to follow the negative thinking train to the end and see where the illogical thinking takes you. For example, thinking that no one likes me leads to ‘I will die alone,’ which leads to ‘I need to buy a dog because it will bark when I stop responding and the barking will annoy the neighbors and they will call 911.’ When one begins to plan for these negative events, the reality is that these worries are possibilities, not probabilities.”

Diane Urban, licensed psychologist and adjunct professor at Manhattan College and Southern New Hampshire University

Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts

“Clients who struggle with catastrophizing tend to internalize their thought processes. For example, they may say things like, ‘I am a horrible person,’ ‘Nothing will ever work out for me,’ ‘I am a failure.’ By using these ‘I’ statements, we are allowing our anxious thoughts to become our personality and who we are. One subtle yet effective strategy is creating separation from your thoughts. ‘I am a horrible person’ changes to ‘I am having the thought that I am a horrible person,’ ‘I am a failure’ changes to ‘My brain is telling me that I am a failure.’ This helps to externalize our thoughts so that they do not feel as consuming.”

—Courtney Morgan, licensed professional clinical counselor and founder of Counseling Unconditionally

Practice grounding techniques

“One approach that has proven particularly beneficial is grounding techniques. These are simple exercises to help bring your focus back to the present moment when your thoughts start spiraling. For instance, you might engage your senses by naming five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. This technique can interrupt the cycle of negative thinking and bring you back to reality.”

Elvis Rosales, licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director at Align Recovery Centers

Pay attention when things go well

“We understandably pay more attention to bad things happening in our lives because, let’s face it, they are upsetting. Catastrophizers, however, have a habit of devoting large amounts of time, attention, and energy to thinking about the worst-case what-ifs, in addition to any bad things that might be happening each day. To neutralize or reverse this tendency, we often need to start taking notice of when things turn out okay or go well. Keeping a daily list can be a reminder of the real rates of good versus upsetting events.

“At the same time, we want to make notes about when our catastrophic predictions don’t come true. The more we see the errors of our predictions, the more likely we will treat them with doubt when they arise. We’ll start to quickly notice when our mind is crying wolf and be better able to stop the ruminative cycle before it has revved up. A core belief that can drive catastrophic thinking is, ‘I can’t handle this.’ It’s important to explore that underlying belief and challenge it with contradictory evidence. Keeping a record of big problems you’ve been able to solve could help weaken that belief.”

Scott Glassman, director of the master of applied positive psychology program at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

Accept bad things when they happen

“This may sound strange, but I talk with patients about the idea of getting better at suffering. It always elicits a joke: ‘Oh, I’m already great at that.’ But there’s a difference between obsessing about bad things versus accepting them. Catastrophizing seems like an effort [toward] acceptance but it’s actually a strategy for avoidance. The work here is to move toward the very real sadness and stress of uncertainty rather than trying to bargain with it. The world comes with uncertainty, bad things happen, someday we’ll die.”

Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy

Try to problem-solve instead of searching for problems

“If you are engaged in catastrophic thinking, you may have thought about how daunting the situation is and ways you are unable to fix it. Problem-solving may be helpful. Try breaking down the situation into more manageable parts instead of focusing on options that are overwhelming and frustrating.

“For example, if you have the belief that you have no friends, you would first identify the problem. The second step would be to check the facts by finding evidence that supports these thoughts to determine if you are indeed assuming the worst without reason. The third step would be to establish your goal. If your goal is to make friends, engage in more social interaction, or find a sense of community or belonging, then you would establish that goal and brainstorm possible solutions to achieve that goal by breaking down your goal into actionable steps. You would then select your solution and, if necessary, it would be helpful to develop a pros and cons list to help put that thought into action. Most of all, have self-compassion and give yourself grace because breaking negative thought patterns can be very challenging.”

Peta-Gaye Sandiford, licensed mental health counselor at Empower Your Mind Therapy

Focus on what you can control

“The minute your train of thought starts to get off the rails, force yourself to think that you are not the master. You do not have control over the future. But you do have the power to either fight it or accept it. So think about all the positive ways you will deal with that catastrophic event.”

—Jessica Plonchak, executive clinical director at ChoicePoint Health

Even Better

Everything you need to know about finding mental health care

Even Better

What kids lose without snow days

Politics

Mascuzynity: How a nicotine pouch explains the new ethos of young conservative men

View all stories in Life

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.