Catastrophizing - Why We Worry and How Do We Stop? (2/2)

Here's to the anxious ones out there. May we all find that right napkin.

By Meng-lin (Benny) Hsieh, M.Ed., Counseling Psychologist in Taiwan

The function of catastrophizing

If catastrophizing makes our problems worse, why do we do it? Interestingly, some psychologists have theorized that worrying decreases our anxiety in the short term, through the process of mental abstraction. In this view, even though worrying about hypothetical scenarios makes us feel nervous, that level of anxiety is still lighter than if those things actually happened. In this way, the action of worrying is "negatively reinforced" as a coping mechanism for a more profoundly feared outcome.

Another reason why people engage in catastrophizing is that worrying is a part of a failed attempt to problem solve. We've heard the saying "prepare for the worst but hope for the best". Sometimes catastrophizing disguises itself as a logical process of minimizing risk. The problem is, the negative outcomes that you're generally trying to prevent either a) have a very low chance of happening in the first place and b) would happen regardless of whether or not you've worried about them prior. In other words, catastrophizing is rarely helpful towards the actual problem. Instead, it impedes your ability to generate workable solutions by taking up mental space and energy.

Both of these explanations point to how catastrophizing, or worrying in general, kind of helps out by decreasing our anxiety by a little bit in the short term, but makes our problems worse over the long run.

How to challenge catastrophizing

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, the therapist works with you to develop a skill called "cognitive coping", which is the ability to look at situations as accurately as you can, and think about solutions to problems in your daily life. The first step is to become aware of the content of our thoughts: what goes on in your mind when you notice you're feeling anxious or on-edge? Sometimes thoughts come in the form of sentences, such as "I'm going to fail tomorrow's exam". Sometimes they appear in your mind in pictures or play out in your head like movie scenes, for instance, being rejected or ostracized by people you care about. Regardless, try to describe what's going on in your mind as best you can.

Next, try to take a step back and look at those thoughts and/or images as if they're from somebody else. You can do this by letting those thoughts sit for a period of time, or imagine you've just received a copy of your friend's bullet journal. Then, try your best to come up with "evidence" that either supports, or disproves those thoughts. A sample of questions you may ask yourself to help you with this process is:

  • Have I had any experiences or is there any information that suggests that this thought is not completely true 100% of the time?

  • If my best friend or someone I loved had this thought, what would I tell them?

  • Have I been in this type of situation before? Is there anything different between this situation and the previous one? What have I learned from prior experiences that could help me understand this situation differently?

  • Are there any strengths or qualities I have that I am ignoring? What might they be? How would they help in this situation?

(From Mind Over Mood, 2nd edition. Dennis Greenberger and Christine A Padesky, 2016)

You could even ask yourself: "Does worrying about this situation help me achieve my goals? If not, how can I spend my time and energy in a more constructive manner?" Once you've reviewed the accuracy or helpfulness of those thoughts, it's time to generate an alternative or "balanced" thought that takes into account both supporting and disproving evidence. There are more than one "right" answer. In Jake Peralta's "Groom Gut" example, a balanced thought might be "I worry that the decision I make might make my fiance feel disappointed. But that would be presuming I know exactly how she would think and feel about my choices. I could try to ask her through text. The worst that could happen is we use a napkin at our wedding that we don't really like called 'desert whimsy'."

The truth is, everybody engages with worrying to some extent, but when this behavior happens so frequently that it is causing you stress and negatively impacting your ability to work and maintain relationships, it may be a good idea to seek professional help.

Here's to the anxious ones out there. May we all find that right napkin.


Flink, I. L., Boersma, K. & Linton, S. J. (2013). Pain catastrophizing as repetitive negative thinking: A development of the conceptualization. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 42(3), 215-223.

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (2016). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E., Yurko, K. H., Martin, L. R. & Friedman, H. S. (1998). Catastrophizing and untimely death. Psychological Science, 9(2), 127-130.

Photo by Luriko Yamaguchi: