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Do you often worry about what could go wrong? Then you may be experiencing catastrophic thinking. Help is available.

What are catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thoughts happen when a person assumes the worst will happen or exaggerates the potential consequences of negative events. It is a type of cognitive distortion common in anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety and panic disorder, but also other mental health conditions. It can lead to excessive worrying, trying to control situations and events, and can even cause physical symptoms. Help is available.

Is catastrophic thinking a diagnosis?

Catastrophic thinking is not considered a diagnosis by itself. However, it can be a symptom of an underlying mental health diagnosis, like generalized anxiety disorder.

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Can you get rid of catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thoughts can be treated with different cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques. Other methods can also be helpful, such as metacognitive therapy (MCT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). We have licensed psychologists and qualified therapists who can help.

Causes of catastrophic thoughts

Catastrophic thinking can be caused by psychological, biological and environmental factors. It can be due to previous traumatic experiences or negative events. Low self-esteem and insecurity can also lead to the development of anxious thoughts and beliefs. There may also be biological factors, as anxiety can be genetic.


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Symptoms of catastrophic thinking

Common characteristics of catastrophic thinking include:

  1. Worst-case scenario thinking: automatically assuming that the most negative scenario will occur in a situation. For example, if someone is late for a meeting, a person with catastrophic thinking may think that they will definitely lose their job as a result.
  2. Exaggeration of risks and dangers: Seeing potential situations as much more dangerous or risky than they actually are.
  3. ‘What if’ thinking: A tendency to worry about all possible hypothetical outcomes, even if they are highly unlikely. For example, “‘What if I say something stupid during the presentation and everyone laughs at me?”
  4. Focusing on negative outcomes: Concentrating on the negative to the extent that positive outcomes or solutions are ignored or not considered.
  5. Emotional reinforcement: Feeling a strong emotional response based on these negative predictions can reinforce feelings of anxiety or panic.

These are just a few examples of catastrophic thoughts that people may have, which are often part of anxiety disorders. Treatment looks at the thoughts that arise in different situations specific to each individual.


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Treatment of catastrophic thoughts

Catastrophic thinking is often a part of anxiety disorder. It can also be found in depressive disorders and other mental health diagnoses. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is effective in helping people challenge and change catastrophic thoughts. CBT is based on learning theory that looks at how the thoughts have developed.

Through CBT, individuals learn to identify, challenge and replace excessive negative thoughts with more realistic and balanced thoughts. This is called cognitive restructuring. In newer forms of therapy such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), you can also work more with mindfulness to change your approach to your thoughts. It is possible to get help with catastrophic thoughts and feel better.


12 common questions and answers about catastrophic thinking

What are catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thoughts are cognitive distortions where a person assumes the worst will happen or exaggerates the consequences of negative events.

Can catastrophic thinking be related to other mental health problems?

Catastrophic thoughts are common in anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety and panic disorder. They can also be present in other mental health disorders.

Is catastrophic thinking a diagnosis?

Catastrophic thinking is not considered a diagnosis by itself. However, it can be a symptom of an underlying mental health diagnosis, like generalized anxiety disorder.

What causes catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thinking can be caused by psychological, biological and environmental factors. It is often the result of several different factors that interact with each other.

What are the symptoms of catastrophic thinking?

Catastrophic thinking often manifests as excessive worrying and focusing on the worst case scenario. This can lead to trying to control situations and events, and experiencing physical symptoms.

What are cognitive distortions?

Cognitive distortions are irrational or exaggerated thoughts or patterns of thoughts . Anyone can experience them, but in anxiety disorders they often happen regularly and have a negative impact on quality of life. Treatment can help you manage and address these thoughts.

Can catastrophic thoughts be treated?

Catastrophic thoughts can be treated with various techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). There are also other methods that can be helpful, such as metacognitive therapy (MCT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

What is cognitive behavioural therapy?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to anxiety.

What is Acceptance and Commitment therapy?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a newer form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that focuses more on acceptance and mindfulness.

Can you have catastrophic thoughts if you have experienced difficult events?

It is not uncommon to have catastrophic thoughts after difficult events such as trauma or loss. Getting an assessment by a licensed psychologist or doctor can be the first step in addressing these thoughts.

Can a change in lifestyle help to manage catastrophic thoughts?

Lifestyle changes can play a role in managing these thoughts. For example, working on stress management can reduce stressful thoughts. You may also need psychological treatment for anxiety disorders or other mental health concerns linked to catastrophic thoughts.

Where can I go if I need help?

Through our site, you can book an initial session with a licensed psychologist or therapist to describe your concerns and start making a plan to address them. We will help you make the difficult easier.

Treating catastrophic thoughts with cognitive behavioural therapy

This section explains how to treat catastrophic thoughts using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Help is available.

1. Assessment of symptoms

The first step is for a licensed psychologist or qualified therapist to help you evaluate your situation and history. They will assess whether your thoughts may also be linked to a mental health disorder. You may also be asked to complete assessment forms.

2. Psychoeducation and goals

You will learn about how your thoughts affect you both physically and mentally. You will work on analyzing situations and will also set goals for treatment.

3. Tools for changing behaviours and patterns

You will work on identifying and changing thought patterns. Together with your therapist, you can work with different tools to overcome your concerns. This may involve balancing your thoughts but also working with mindfulness. You will be given homework to practice between sessions.

4. Follow up and evaluate progress

You will be supported by your psychologist or therapist throughout the process. At the end of the treatment, you will also receive a plan to continue practicing so that you can maintain your progress.

    A first step in seeking help

    If you recognize that you have catastrophic thoughts, help is available. It is possible to improve your quality of life! We offer access to psychologists and therapists who are ready to support you through your journey. We make the difficult easier.

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    Written by Ellen Lindgren

    Licensed psychologist

    Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.