What is Catastrophizing?
Catastrophizing is a common type of cognitive distortion, which is the umbrella term for a number of irrational ways of thinking that keep us stagnant in life and negatively impact our behaviors. Psychologists often refer to catastrophizing and other cognitive distortions as “stinking thinking,” because they’re almost always part of the cause of anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health disorders.
If someone you love has a tendency to catastrophize, your initial reaction may be to simply roll your eyes and assume they’re simply overreacting. But in some cases, particularly when a drug or alcohol addiction is involved, catastrophizing can do some serious damage. People who catastrophize tend to deplete your energy and take up more of your time than you can afford. You may even feel threatened at times, especially if you’re on the receiving end of misguided accusations or invalid conclusions.
What Does Catastrophizing Look Like?
Catastrophizing is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of certain events. Someone who catastrophizes may anticipate every terrible thing that could possibly go wrong before taking a certain course of action and then create a self-fulfilling prophecy where things then actually do go wrong.
Catastrophizing occurs in two parts. First, the person predicts a negative outcome, such as, “I just know I’m going to fail my driver’s license exam.” Secondly, the person jumps to the conclusion that if the negative outcome transpires, catastrophe will ensue, such as losing their job and then getting evicted from their home because they couldn’t pay the rent.
People who catastrophize expect disaster to strike and overreact accordingly. The motivation behind the tendency to catastrophize may be to draw attention to oneself or away from a particular issue, manipulate people to a certain desired action or reaction, punish or hurt someone for hurting them, or justify an action that is deemed inappropriate.
Regardless of the motivation, this type of thinking is counter-productive, and it’s a major obstacle to meaningful change.
Catastrophizing and Addiction Recovery
Catastrophizing and other types of “stinking thinking” can lead to the onset or worsening of anxiety and depression, and they’re commonly seen in people who have substance abuse or addiction problems. Negative thinking can make it difficult for your loved one to take steps to overcome an addiction for fear that the worst possible outcome will come true, and this type of emotional paralysis can be detrimental to recovery.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, should be a major component of an addiction recovery program for someone who engages in catastrophizing and other cognitive distortions. CBT will help your loved one identify inaccurate beliefs, self-destructive attitudes, and harmful thought patterns and learn to replace them with healthier and more accurate ways of thinking.
How to Handle a Loved One Who Catastrophizes
Those who catastrophize may be ensnared in self-pity, paralyzed by a sense of hopelessness, or be unable to see a situation clearly due to false beliefs and unproductive attitudes. You can help your loved one through a perceived crisis by staying calm and objective and investigating the situation to learn the facts. Tell your loved one how you see the situation and what you recommend should be done about it, and then exit the conversation if it becomes circular.
Take suicide threats and other threats seriously, and engage the help of an expert to determine whether those threats require action. Try to avoid getting mired in helping your loved one solve a drama, which may further perpetuate the belief that the situation is catastrophic. Most importantly, try to get your loved one into a recovery program that will help address the harmful thoughts and behaviors that underlie the tendency to catastrophize and improve your loved one’s emotional health and quality of life.