What Is Catastrophic Thinking? (And How to Stop)

We've all experienced catastrophic thinking, but there are ways to snap out of it.

Image by pukrufus/ Getty Images

By Jamie Wiebe

When your thoughts start spiraling, getting off the “staircase” can feel impossible. One terrible notion leads to the next: If I can’t get this report done in time, you might think, then I’ll be fired. And if I’m fired, I’ll have nothing to do all day. If I have nothing to do all day, I’ll fall into a video game and beer hole. If I fall into a video game and beer hole, then my wife will leave me. And then…and then…and then

Does this process sound familiar? This anxiety spiral — also known as “catastrophic thinking” or “magnifying,” — often occurs alongside anxiety and depression. Think of your brain as a rocky mountain: one single distressing thought loosens an avalanche of related anxieties.

Here are some other examples:

  • If I don’t stay up all night studying, I’ll fail my test — and if I fail my test, I’ll be kicked out of school.
  • I have a missed call from my mother — someone I love must have died.
  • There’s a weird freckle on my elbow. It’s cancer. I’m going to die. Tomorrow.

No matter how true and valid each thought feels, it’s important to remember that they are simply thoughts — and thoughts can be constrained. Minimizing your catastrophic thoughts can help reduce your anxiety or be an important stepping-stone in your depression recovery: after all, these torrential cascades of terrible thoughts increase cortisol levels in your brain. Too much cortisol — also known as the “stress hormone” — can cause a number of long-term health problems.

How to Prevent Catastrophic Thinking

Prevent catastrophic thinking by preparing your mind before a distressing thought strikes. Here’s how.

1. Keep an eye on your thoughts

How can you stop something you don’t realize is happening until you’re deep in its maw? The first step in preventing the anxiety avalanche is learning to recognize the unique fingerprint of your brain’s catastrophic thinking.

Practice observing your thoughts without judging their validity or truthfulness. If that sounds hard, you aren’t alone: there’s a reason an increasing number of Americans are taking up yoga and meditation. Sign up for a nearby yoga class or take time each morning to meditate. These practices teach you how to acknowledge your thoughts — without getting swept up in their tide.

Stopping catastrophic thinking requires stepping in at the first sign of trouble. Once you understand your personal thought patterns, recognizing a disturbance will be much easier.

2. Find your spiral’s source

When you’re deep in the black cloud of panicked thinking, uncovering the spiral’s original spark can be difficult. You’re worried about losing your boyfriend, your apartment, and your job — but dig deep to find the root. Did this spiral begin because you failed a pop quiz in chemistry class? Because you felt a funny lump in your armpit?

Once you’ve found what caused the spiral, it’s easier to deal with the problem. Think about it like killing a fast-growing vine: If you don’t dig out the roots, the leaves will continue spreading indefinitely.

3. Use your logical brain

Once you’ve dialed down your catastrophic thinking to its source, take time to dissect your specific anxieties about the issue. Now is a great opportunity to practice your meditation skills, lest you fall into yet another spiral during the dissection! Perhaps learning how to drive terrifies you, and your thinking catastrophizes every time you get behind the wheel.

Use logic to help defeat your wily brain. A lot of panic comes down to overestimating the true chances of danger. Learning the facts may sooth your mind: Research how often car accidents happen and read up on best driving practices to ensure that you’re the safest driver you can be.

Are your concerns health-related? While it might seem scary, the best cure is seeing your doctor. Or if you’re struggling at work, talk it through with your boss — chances are they’ll be more kind and receptive than you expected.

4. Challenge your anxious thinking

Spirals are scary because the thoughts feel so real, but if you notice yourself slipping, take a deep breath and challenge your beliefs. Ask yourself, “Is this threat real right now?” Perhaps you’ve been stuck in your bed for days waiting for laboratory test results. Your mind may be caught up in a web of worries: Do I have a disease? If I have a disease, am I going to die? Even if I survive, how will I afford my care?

Stop. Focus on the here and the now. If the test results are bad, you can deal with it at that moment — don’t waste time panicking about it now!

You want to challenge your catastrophic thinking, but you don’t want to beat yourself up for having anxious thoughts. Our brain does all sorts of unwelcome things without our consent, and having a panic spiral doesn’t make you a bad person. Don’t get angry at yourself for falling for your mind’s clever trap — focus your energies on escaping its pull.

Get in touch with a professional.

Not everyone can overcome their catastrophic thinking solo, and that’s okay! If you’re struggling to rein in your thoughts, reach out to a therapist for additional help.

They can work through the causes of your catastrophic thinking and recommend specific, tailored-to-you exercises and techniques. With their help, you can step out of the spiral and start living again.

Originally published at www.talkspace.com

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...


Confessions of a Catastrophic Fantasiser

by Jessica Avery
PeopleImages/ Getty Images

A Peak Performance Expert Shares His Battles With Mental Illness

by Brad Stulberg
Courtesy of Tatiana Dyuvbanova / EyeEm / Getty Images

I Use This 5-Minute Therapy Technique Every Day for My Anxiety

by Healthline

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.