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Do you think constantly about things that could go wrong and worry about future events? You may have catastrophic thoughts. Here we explain what they are and how to get help.

What are catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thoughts are interpretations where a person assumes the worst will happen or exaggerates the consequences of negative events. It is a type of cognitive bias common in anxiety disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety and panic disorder, but also other mental health conditions. It can lead to worrying, trying to control situations and events, and experiencing physical symptoms. This can be helped in treatment.

Is catastrophic thinking a diagnosis?

Catastrophic thoughts are not a separate diagnosis but are often part of other types of mental health problems, specifically anxiety disorders. Depression is often accompanied by anxiety, so catastrophic thinking is common and can also occur in other mental health conditions and neuropsychiatric problems.

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Can you get rid of catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thoughts can be treated with different 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). Lavendla has 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 attitudes. Perfectionism, with an exaggerated fear of making mistakes, also has an impact. There may also be biological factors or heredity, as people can take after close relatives who were also anxious growing up. Many factors combine to create this way of thinking.


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Symptoms of catastrophic thinking

Catastrophic thinking is common and here are some characteristics:

  1. Worst-case scenario thinking: Automatically assuming 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 they are sure to 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 negative predictions, which 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 part of anxiety problems and can lead to stress. It can also be part of depression or other mental health problems. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is effective in helping people challenge and change catastrophic thoughts. These misinterpretations may have developed as part of a person’s life history. 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 of cognitive biases, which are misinterpretations of different situations. In newer forms of therapy such as Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT), you work more with mindfulness to change your approach to your thoughts. It is possible to get help with catastrophic thoughts and feel better.

Dealing with catastrophic thoughts

If you recognise that you have catastrophic thoughts, it is good to seek help. It is possible to improve your quality of life and Lavendla has psychologists and therapists who are ready to support you through your journey. We make the difficult easier.


12 common questions and answers about catastrophic thinking

What are catastrophic thoughts?

Catastrophic thoughts are interpretations 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?

It is common in anxiety disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety and panic disorder, but also other mental health conditions.

Is catastrophic thinking a diagnosis?

Catastrophic thoughts are not a separate diagnosis but are often part of other types of mental health problems, specifically anxiety disorders, and also other mental health problems such as depression or neuropsychiatric problems, such as ADHD.

What causes catastrophic thoughts?

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

What are the symptoms of catastrophic thinking?

It can lead to worrying, trying to control situations and events, and experiencing physical symptoms.

What are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are various misinterpretations that people can make. All people do this to a greater or lesser extent, but in anxiety disorders they often have negative consequences for the individual. Treatment can help you manage and change your thoughts.

Can catastrophic thoughts be treated?

Catastrophic thoughts can be treated with various techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Other methods 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. It is important to get an assessment by a licensed psychologist or doctor for this type of problem.

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, but you may also need more psychological treatment for anxiety disorders or other mental health problems 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 discuss your problem and start planning a treatment programme. We help you make the difficult easier.

Treating catastrophic thoughts with CBT

Here we explain how to treat catastrophic thoughts using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Help is available, and this gives you an idea of how treatment works:

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 related to another mental disorder. You may also be asked to complete assessment forms.

Psychoeducation and goals

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

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 problem. This may involve balancing your thoughts and working with mindfulness. You will be given homework to practise between sessions.

Follow up and evaluate progress

You will be supported by your psychologist throughout the process. At the end of the treatment, you will receive a plan to continue practising and maintain your progress over time.

Feel free to book a first session with one of our licensed psychologists or therapists to see how we can help you. We make the difficult easier.

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Written by dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.