Warped Thinking: Catastrophizing

This is our third post in our Warped Thinking series. Warped thinking, or cognitive distortions, are ways that we think that may lead us to less desirable outcomes. Anytime we approach a new situation, we are prone to view it through one of many warped thinking styles. By learning to recognize this warped thinking and implement ways to combat it, we are more likely to get the outcomes we desire.

Today's post is all about catastrophizing. As you may be able to guess from the name, this warped thinking style is all about turning a situation into a catastrophe when it really isn't.

Human creativity can be a wonderful thing. Our brains are great at imagining some things in great detail. However, this can turn against us if our imaginations lead us to the worst possible outcomes. When we catastrophize, it looks something like this:

You wake up late because your alarm didn't go off. You know you will be late for work. In the panic of trying to get ready, you start imagining what will happen. If you are late, you'll probably be written up. Then you'll be fired. You won't be able to find another job because nowhere wants to hire someone who has been fired. You won't be able to pay your rent. You'll get evicted. You'll have to live in your car, but your car will get repossessed because you can't afford the payments. Then it will just be you and your little bit of belongings you can carry living outdoors somewhere. When it gets cold you'll get sick. You won't be able to afford medicine or to go to the doctor, so you'll die.

Sound familiar? It's easy to take a situation and find the absolute worst ending to it.

However, the worst possible ending is also usually one of the least likely scenarios of what would happen. That is why we look at likelihood to combat this particular warped thinking style. Let's look at the same scenario again but use a more likely scenario instead.

You wake up late for work because your alarm doesn't go off. You know that you haven't been late before, so you remain calm knowing that it is most likely not going to end in negative consequences. While you are rushing around getting ready, you call your boss and let them know what happened. Your boss says he or she understands and to get there as soon as you can. You get to work and check in with your boss. He or she says it happens sometimes. You get to work.

With catastrophizing, it's not just thoughts themselves which affect our outcomes the most but the way in which we act due to the thoughts. In the scenario that starts with being written up, our behaviors will tend to be in line with the catastrophic thoughts. For example, because we are afraid to be fired we might not call our boss ahead of time to let him or her know we are going to be late. This can lead to the boss being angry or getting a write up. By recognizing that we are engaging in this negative thinking style, we also change our behaviors which change our outcomes in the end.