Catastrophizing - Why We Worry and How Do We Stop?(1/2)


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

[Mild Spoilers Ahead]


In the show "Brooklyn 99", the protagonist, Jake Peralta is having some trouble picking out a beige-colored napkin for his wedding.

Jake: "I didn't realize there were 45 different shades! Chanterelle, Desert Whimsy, Filbert Husk…Words have no more meaning, Terry!"

Terry, Jake's Lieutenant, tells him: "We're running out of time, man. You gotta make a call."

Jake: "But what if I choose wrong? That's a terrible way to start off a marriage! People won't even be watching our first dance. They're gonna be too busy laughing at the napkins!"

[Jake's phone alarm goes off again]

Jake: "Ok. Maybe I can narrow it down. Umm…I think…I don't like 'desert whimsy'?"

Terry: "...Okay"

Jake: "Why did you pause like that? Was that secretly your favorite one?"

Terry: "Look, you know Amy better than anyone. You just have to trust your gut. What does your gut tell you?"

Jake: "That I'm a terrible napkin chooser and will therefore be a horrible spouse?"

Terry: "That is not your gut. That is your crazy nonsense brain. Trust me, Jake. You know the right napkin. Is it this one?"

What is catastrophizing?

In the example above, Jake Peralta seems to imply that choosing a wrong napkin would lead to him and his fiance being publicly humiliated, or would set off a chain of reactions that leads to the demise of his relationship. This is obviously an exaggeration for comedic effect, but Jake's worrying in this dialogue is illustrative of one of the most common thinking traps that people fall into unconsciously: catastrophizing.

Catastrophizing is a thinking pattern that assumes the worst scenario is the most likely outcome. Catastrophizing has many names. Some people refer to them as rumination. Others call it catastrophic worrying. One of the most defining features of catastrophizing is its repetitive nature: it happens over and over again without generating any concrete, workable solutions. Another prominent trait of catastrophizing is that it is oftentimes unconscious. Usually the act of worrying about something is automatic. It almost feels like something we do out of habit. Kind of like pushing up your glasses when you're wearing contacts for the day.

Catastrophizing also describes an "explanatory style" that assumes globality, rather than specificity. For instance, a person prone to catastrophizing might be more likely to conclude that "because something bad has happened before, something bad is going to happen again" and in the process, overlook important contextual clues that would suggest otherwise.

Worrying, and its contribution to the development and perpetuation of mood problems (and pain)

Catastrophic worrying is linked to a myriad of mental health problems, especially those that are related to mood, such as anxiety and depression. It's easy to understand how our thoughts may impact our emotional experiences. If the first thought that pops into your brain when your spouse doesn't respond to your text immediately is "They're in an accident and something has gone horribly wrong", then it's no wonder you would feel nervous, or even panic.

Psychologists have found that worrying may also perpetuate anxiety and depression. When we engage in rumination, we feel worse off than if we were able to jump off the worrying train, which creates stress to our minds and bodies, and in turn creates a negative feedback loop where we feel worse for even longer. This applies to psychological suffering such as depression and anxiety, but also to physical problems, such as chronic pain. When catastrophizing or worrying becomes a habit, they can add to the mental and physical burden of our daily lives, and increase the severity of our suffering significantly.


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 Alycia Fung: