Catastrophizing is a pattern of thinking that distresses and debilitates
There’s a small stain on the carpet. What if someone hacks into my computer and steals my bank details? Will I be late for work if the clocks in the house aren’t accurate? There’s a slight scratch on the car; you need to look very closely to see it, but I know it’s there.
Have you ever had these kinds of thoughts about the minutiae of your life? Have they bugged you all day—entering your head uncontrollably and bullying you into making them the focus of your attention? Then do these ‘bullying’ thoughts drive you to start asking “What if….?” Questions. “What if the clocks are wrong?” “What if I can’t get that stain out of the carpet?” “What if my bank details are stolen?”
Graham C. L. Davey, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK. His research interests extend across mental health problems generally, and anxiety and worry specifically. Professor Davey has published over 140 articles in scientific and professional journals and written or edited 16 books including Psychopathology; Clinical Psychology; Applied Psychology; Complete Psychology; Worrying & Psychological Disorders; and Phobias: A Handbook of Theory, Research & Treatment. He has served as President of the British Psychological Society and is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Experimental Psychopathology(link is external). When not writing about psychology he watches football and eats curries.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
The interesting thing about “What if…?” questions is that they simply generate more “What if…?” questions. This carries your thinking from the detail of a minor daily issue to one of the monstrously life-altering proportions. This is known as “catastrophizing” and we’ve all done it at some point in our lives, usually when we’re feeling down, anxious or just simply tired. But for many people who are chronic worriers, it has become a daily pattern of thinking which is distressing and debilitating. Just imagine what it would be like to make mountains out of every little molehill in your life. It would not only make your own life seem overwhelmingly burdensome but would also impact the lives of others around you as you seek help and reassurances about those worries that have grown from small harmless seeds into giant, threatening forests.
Here’s an interesting example that neatly captures the absurdity of catastrophizing—at least to a nonworrier. But if you are a chronic worrier, then you’ll recognize this pattern of thought, and the distress it causes—despite the rather fantastic endpoint of this chain of thought.
In our studies of worry, we ask people what their main worry is at present. We then ask them the question “What is it about your worry that worries you?” So, for example, if someone says they are worried about their finances, we ask “What is it that worries you about your finances?” If the person then replies “I may have to leave my home if I can’t pay the mortgage”, we then ask “What is it about leaving your home if you can’t pay the mortgage that worries you?”, and so on until the person can think of no more responses. Interestingly, chronic worries will continue with this process for much longer than nonworriers—thinking up many more responses in the chain and elaborating their initial worry with more worries in the process! Nonworriers tend to stop very quickly, and so don’t elaborate their worries in such a viral fashion.
Here’s an example of a chronic worrier’s responses in our catastrophizing interview showing each of the thought steps he made while thinking about his initial worry—which was simply “getting good grades in school”.
I won’t live up to my expectations
I’d be disappointed in myself.
I’d lose my self-confidence
My loss of self-confidence would spread to other areas of my life.
I wouldn’t have as much control as I’d like.
I’d be afraid of facing the unknown.
I’d become very anxious.
Anxiety would lead to further loss of self-confidence.
I wouldn’t get my confidence back.
I’d feel like 1 wouldn’t have any control over my life.
I’d be susceptible to things that normally wouldn’t bother me.
I’d become more and more anxious.
I’d have no control at all and I’d become mentally ill.
I’d become dependent on drugs and therapy.
I’d always remain dependent on drugs.
They’d deteriorate my body.
I’d be in pain.
I’d end up in hell.
Oh, dear! This person has catastrophized “getting good grades in school” to ending up in hell—and has gone through drug addiction, physical pain, and mental illness on the way! Clearly, you can see that this is no way to think about your life—where the small stain on the sitting room carpet condemns you to an eternity in hell. However, if you recognize yourself as a “catastrophizer” there are some things you can do to begin to manage these thought patterns and to help yourself, and these are described in outline in two of my previous blog posts 10 Tips to Manage Your Worrying and 5 Tips to Avoid Becoming a Chronic Worrier