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How to stop catastrophizing: 7 psychiatrist-backed tips

How to stop catastrophizing: 7 psychiatrist-backed tips

Catastrophic thinking and constant worry about potential negative events can take a toll on your mental health.

Reviewed by:
Divya Khosla, MD
View bio
June 29, 2024
Original source:

Key takeaways

  • Catastrophizing involves irrational thoughts that bad things will happen.
  • It can be linked to mental health conditions like an anxiety disorder, or PTSD.
  • Instead of dwelling on negative outcomes, try reframing them and changing your perspective.
In this article

It’s natural to let your mind wander to the worst-case scenario occasionally. Everyone does it! However, if catastrophic thinking becomes the norm, it takes a toll on your happiness, relationships, and well-being. Catastrophic thinking may lead you down persistent thought spirals and convince you that the worst outcomes are actually the most likely—when, most of the time, this isn’t the case.  

If you suffer from this type of destructive overthinking, don’t worry. The first step toward stopping these thoughts is recognizing them. In this article, we’ll review what causes catastrophizing, when to get help, and some tips for coping.

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What causes catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing, or ruminating on worst-case scenarios, is common for people with low self-esteem, anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It may occurs because your brain is actually trying to reduce the anxiety and fear you have about a certain situation by considering all possible outcomes. However, thinking of the worst-case scenario may just increase anxiety and have the opposite effect.  

Catastrophizing is often subconscious and may take a while to recognize. This means it becomes quite habitual. You may think of the worst possible outcome so often that it becomes second nature. Over time, this type of thinking leads to excessive worrying, negative thinking patterns, heightened anxiety, and worsened emotional states.

Tips to stop catastrophizing

You can develop positive thought processes just like you can develop negative ones. Here are some techniques to try if you want to reduce negative thinking and cultivate a more positive mindset.  

1. Recognize catastrophic thinking

The first step in reducing anxious thoughts is recognizing them. Try to realize each time you catastrophize. This will help you recognize how often you have these thoughts and what prompts them the most.  

2 Challenge and reframe negative thoughts

Once you’re able to recognize catastrophic thoughts, it’s time to challenge them. Questioning the accuracy of these thoughts helps you see how harmful and inaccurate they are. Next time you imagine a worst-case outcome, consider the facts of your situation. Is that outcome actually the most likely? What evidence do you have that it’ll actually happen? If you find that the worst-case scenario isn’t likely or rooted in facts, it’s time to reframe your thought to a more positive or neutral one.

3. Utilize positive affirmations

Positive affirmations are statements you say to yourself to improve self confidence and esteem. This exercise helps you establish positive thought processes, especially when it comes to your self worth and capability. Positive affirmations also help you reframe your catastrophic thinking. For example, if you’re assuming the worst will come from your performance review at work, but you’ve been practicing positive affirmations, you’ll be better equipped to assure yourself that you’re a hard working, successful person.

Here are some examples of positive affirmations:

  • I am deserving of success.
  • I am hard-working and fun to be around.
  • I am a good friend and kind to others.
  • I am beautiful.  

4. Redirect thoughts

Catastrophic thinking is most disruptive because of its persistent and repetitive nature. If you find yourself in a recurring thought loop, it’s important to redirect your attention. There are several ways to do this, including practicing mindfulness or distracting yourself with an activity like exercise or talking to loved ones.  

5. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that quiets your mind and helps you focus on the present moment. This doesn't look the same for everyone: It's an individualized grounding exercise to help focus on your senses and potentially decrease anxiety symptoms, and it’s especially helpful when you’re experiencing cognitive distortions like catastrophic thoughts.

Here’s how to practice mindfulness:

  • Sit comfortably and focus on your breathing. Inhale and exhale slowly, paying attention to each breath.
  • Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment. Simply bring your attention back to your breath each time you get distracted.
  • Try yoga, walking, exercise, and other types of physical activity.  

6. Journal

Journaling is a wonderful way to express thoughts and emotions. Try writing your catastrophic thoughts down. Seeing your words written down may give you a new perspective. People who journal often find that journaling helps you decompress and quiet your mind. Plus, the process of writing down your destructive thoughts may help you realize how untrue they are.  

7. Practice deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system and tells your body to relax. This makes deep breathing an effective tool when you’re particularly stressed or feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts.

Here’s one deep breathing exercise to try. It’s called diaphragmatic breathing.

  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of three. As you breathe in, focus on your expanding stomach. Try placing your hand on your stomach.
  • Slowly breathe out for a count of six. As you breathe out, pay attention to how your belly falls.  
  • Continue breathing like this and focus on your rising and falling stomach. Doing so promotes deeper breathing and helps you relax.

When to get help for catastrophic thinking

If your catastrophic thinking disrupts your day-to-day life or affects your happiness, it might be time to seek help. Don’t worry, working with a mental health professional is easier than it sounds. Many people find that working with a mental health professional greatly improves their quality of life and teaches them how to implement healthy coping mechanisms and positive thought processes.  

A psychiatrist can talk to you about anxiety and help you come up with a treatment plan. Your plan may include cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, or both. If you’re not sure where to start, Talkiatry is here to help. Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care—and you can schedule a first visit within days. Get started with a short online assessment.

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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How does Talkiatry compare to face-to-face treatment?

For most patients, Talkiatry treatment is just as effective as in-person psychiatry (American Psychiatric Association, 2021), and much more convenient. That said, we don’t currently provide treatment for schizophrenia, primary eating disorder treatment, or Medication Assisted Treatment for substance use disorders.

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At Talkiatry, we specialize in psychiatry, meaning the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Your psychiatrist will meet with you virtually on a schedule you set together, devise a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and preferences, and work with you to adjust your plan as you meet your goals.

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What's the difference between a therapist and psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are doctors who have specialized training in diagnosing and treating complex mental health conditions through medication management. If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or similar, a psychiatrist may be a good place to start.  

Other signs that you should see a psychiatrist include:  

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  • You are interested in taking medication to treat a mental health condition  
  • Your symptoms are severe enough to regularly interfere with your everyday life

The term “therapist” can apply to a range of professionals including social workers, mental health counselors, psychologists, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychoanalysts. Working with a therapist generally involves regular talk therapy sessions where you discuss your feelings, problem-solving strategies, and coping mechanisms to help with your condition.

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Divya Khosla, MD

Dr. Divya Khosla, MD, is a board certified Adult Psychiatrist and board eligible Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. She received her undergraduate degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and her medical degree from Ross University, completing all of her clinicals in Maryland, D.C., and NYC. She completed her adult psychiatry residency at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Then she returned to the east coast, where she completed her child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, New York.

Dr. Khosla has participated in a variety of innovative academic clinical research, and has presented research at annual national meetings of the American Psychiatric Association. Her robust clinical experience with varying demographics at different clinical sites around the country has allowed her to treat patients in an evidence-based way, tailoring treatment to an individual’s specific needs.

Although Dr. Khosla’s practice focuses on medication management, she also implements supportive therapy and motivational interviewing in sessions to allow for a more comprehensive approach to treatment. Her clinical interests include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and ADHD.

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