Why Some People Expect Catastrophes in Everyday Situations


May 25, 2023


Image Credit: Adobe Stock/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

Catastrophizing is a domain frequented by overthinkers, who tend to take the tiniest of problems and transform them into full-blown catastrophes — driving them down a vortex of doom and gloom. It’s almost like having a VIP membership to the Anxiety Club, where everything is on the brink of disaster, and an individual perceives themselves to be smack in the middle if it. By and large, it can be described as an exhausting journey of navigating life’s hiccups on edge, simultaneously preparing for the apocalypse.

Catastrophic thinking — a term, reportedly, coined by psychologist Albert Ellis in 1957 — is a cognitive distortion that can significantly impact an individual’s wellbeing by leading them down a spiral of negativity and shame. It is characterized by irrational and hyperbolic thought patterns that pave the path for anxiety and distress. “It’s a negatively skewed way of thinking, which elevates the intensity of emotions to levels that are hard to manage, and in some cases they are overwhelming,” explains Patrick Keelan, a psychologist from Canada.

Typically, catastrophic thinking is borne out of an almost single-minded focus on the “worst possible outcome” in any given situation, which is quickly assigned the status of the “most probable outcome” in the mind of a catastrophic thinker. This is partially due to confirmation bias, where the catastrophic thinker seeks out information aligning with their negative belief — selectively focusing on cues that validate their catastrophic thinking and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

Ron Breazeale, a clinical psychologist, paints a vivid picture of what it entails: “You have been [deployed at a foreign country] a couple of months. You have talked to your husband and your children each week. Last night you tried to reach them. The connection was bad. You begin to think about the stress that your deployment is putting on your husband and your family. A thought pops in your head: ‘He’s left me.’ You begin to obsess about this. Even though the two of you have been married for some time and have never separated, you begin to think that he has become involved with someone else who can be there for him and the children. You have no evidence to support this belief, but you begin to ruminate about it rather than focusing on your responsibilities to yourself and your unit.”

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The propensity to magnify the importance of a mere glitch is often accompanied by a relentless internal dialog filled with self-doubt and criticism. By contributing to a pervasive sense of shame stemming from perceived shortcomings or failures, the element of self-hate becomes a tool to justify otherwise irrational thinking one is engaging in. The shame born thus further fuels the catastrophic thinking further, perpetuating the spiral of negativity and self-judgment. Soon, it becomes a vicious cycle.

Research suggests that catastrophic thinkers are at a higher risk of developing PTSD. Interestingly, developing PTSD, increases one’s predisposition to catastrophizing. “The trauma is viewed as proof that the worst actually can happen– and seen as a sign that only traumatic events will happen from now on. No other possible outcomes are even considered. As time goes on, catastrophic thinking develops into a day-to-day coping strategy designed to help ensure that the person will never be placed in a dangerous situation again,” explains Matthew Tull, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in PTSD. “But having catastrophic thoughts over and over can be paralyzing, leading to extreme anxiety, avoidance, and isolation.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, studies have found catastrophic thinking to often be a precursor to both anxiety and depression, with the latter being brought on by the feelings of hopelessness that can emanate from being stuck in a negative spiral. The former, of course, manifests as a result of perpetually dwelling on negative outcomes that can lead one’s body to physically react as tough the catastrophe is already in progress — reinforcing the stress.

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Catastropic thinking is a common feature of being neurodivergent, too — particularly with autism, ADHD, and OCD. Catastrophizing in people living with OCD is triggered by one’s tendency to fixate on the possibility of colossally adverse outcomes that also happen to be improbable. For autistic and ADHD individuals, it arises from emotional dysregulation, negative core beliefs, and the largely unfavorable experiences of navigating life in a world that routinely discriminates against their neurotypes. Incidentally, OCD, ADHD, and autism often co-occur with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress (be it PTSD, or C-PTSD).

Besides, catastrophizing can also prompt avoidance as a coping mechanism — inducing people to steer clear of certain situations altogether, limiting their growth. What reinforces this avoidance further is the sense of isolation that can follow the cycle of negativity and shame — causing them to withdraw from social interactions and pass up opportunities due to a fear of judgment, if not outright failure.

Escaping the cycle isn’t easy either — especially since its kindled by intrusive thoughts. Of course, by cultivating self-compassion, undergoing therapy, and accummulating other tools to combat catastrophizing, one might able to prevent it from taking over their lives. But as Breazeale says, “Catastrophic thinking needs to be managed, not discounted.”


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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