Blog: Combatting Anxiety & Catastrophic Thinking

When experiencing chronic stress, there is often an increase in physiological arousal - similar to a “fight or flight” reaction - that can lead to excessive worries and irrational, catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thoughts distort reality and exclusively focus on “worst case scenarios” or “what if’s” without considering facts or alternative possibilities.

Utilizing cognitive tools to minimize negative thinking can curtail worries and decrease anxiety:

Remember that “What if’s” are speculative (“What if I mess up this project? What if I lose my job?”). These thoughts are hypothetical and therefore, endless (as we can continually create new hypothetical worries). Recognizing that these thoughts are not based on real circumstances, can help us dismiss their power over our feelings.

Replace “What Ifs” with “What Is” Replace hypothetical worries with factual information. For example, replace “What if I lose my job?” with verifiable information, such as “I have a job now,” “My boss just gave me a good review,” or “My output has increased by 10 percent this year.” Modifying our thinking to focus on “what is” known can help short-circuit hypothetical worrying and help us refocus our brain on factual information.

Consider “Equal-but-Opposite” possibilities. Catastrophic thinking focuses on negative or disastrous outcomes, prohibiting us from considering positive or neutral possibilities.  This negative bias colors our perception and reinforces feelings of foreboding. By simply offering our brain an opposite alternative – for example, replacing “What if my daughter fails out of college?” with “What if she doesn’t?” - we can train our brains to consider the possibility of a less disastrous (and often more likely) outcome, rather than simply accepting our catastrophic thoughts as accurate predictions.

Short circuit "Extreme" thinking.  Anytime we use the terms, "always" or "never," we need to recognize that the belief is likely exaggerated.  For example, "I never catch a break" or "I always mess up," are extreme thoughts that when taken at face value are very fatalistic and naturally lead to negativity and increased worry.  However, such thoughts are almost always inaccurate, as few things actually happen always or never.  Recognizing these thoughts can help us revise our thinking to be less distorted and more accurately reflect reality.  For example, "I have made a few mistakes lately, but I am often very accurate in my work."  This shift in thinking is often accompanied by an emotional shift that leads us to feel less anxious or worried.  

By Michelle A. Epstein, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist


April 13, 2022