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Catastrophic Thinking

By Beverly Ward

June 12, 2022

Science: In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we talk about Cognitive Distortions, which are unhelpful ways of thinking that have become habitual and are problematic. Catastrophizing, also known as Awfulizing, is one common type of Cognitive Distortion. It is when our thoughts about an event or person are ‘worst case scenario’, when we see them as being far worse than they really are. When preparing to give a speech catastrophic thinking might lead us to think, “I’m going to forget everything and stand there speechless….everyone is going to laugh at me…I will ruin my career…and ruin my life…my wife will leave me and my children will lose respect for me…I’ll be penniless, homeless, and alone” While most catastrophizing does not spiral to that level of awful, it does spiral, with one catastrophic thought leading downward to a worse thought. Catastrophic thinking is common, and anyone can experience it. When we are in a depressive or anxious episode, catastrophic thinking becomes dominate among our thought patterns. Left untreated, catastrophic thinking can lead to a worsening of depressive and anxious episodes or can contribute to the initial onset of them.

Neuroscience tells us that we can use the power of our minds to rewire our brains, and that we can change thought habits. Patterns of thinking are shaped over time and it takes time to reshape them. Similarly, our brains are wired over time and rewiring them takes time. With consistency and repetition, we can change our thought habits until we develop a new, different and more helpful thinking style.

Once we recognize a catastrophic thought, we can challenge it with the CBT technique of cognitive restructuring. When you realize that you are catastrophizing, you may be feeling anxiety in your body, if so, the first step is to calm yourself physiologically with diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. Once you are calm, you can begin to challenge your thoughts. When you are ready, write down your catastrophic thought and label it (as a catastrophic thought). Use the tool of cognitive restructuring by asking yourself a series of questions to challenge the thought: If your worry comes true, what is the worst that could happen? What is the best that could happen? What is most likely to happen? How likely is it that your worry will come true (give examples of past experiences, or other evidence, to support your answer?) If your worry does come true, how could you cope? If your worry does come true, how much would it matter (expressed as a percent) in one week…in one month…in one year? In the Lagniappe section of this article, I have included a video to explain more about catastrophizing and how to decatstrophize with cognitive restructuring.

Scripture: Philippians 4:8 gives us the biblical answer for catastrophic thinking, “Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God's word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart].”

Paul is telling us to think about what we are thinking about, to observe our thoughts and intentionally choose them. He tells us to selectively attend to those things that fall into the categories of being true, honorable, respectable, right according to God’s Word, pure, wholesome, lovely, peaceful, admirable, reputable, excellent and praiseworthy. It is estimated that we have over 70,0000 thoughts per day. There is a lot of information competing for our attention. Paul says to filter for the thoughts that meet the criterion he gives us. If you observe yourself having a thought that does not fit these criteria, throw it out and move on to a one that does. (When thoughts are stubborn and won't budge, use CBT to get them moving.) Paul says to think on these helpful thoughts continually, to ponder them, to keep bringing them to mind. Paul shares that this repetition and focus will implant these beneficial thoughts in our hearts (or, to say it in CBT terms, reshape your core beliefs.).

Action Plan: This week’s action plan is in two parts: 1) Consider memorizing Philippians 4:8, scripture memorization is a powerful tool in reshaping our thinking and thereby improving our lives . 2)Think about what you are thinking about. A good way to become more aware of your thoughts it to watch for shifts in emotion. When you notice your mood begin to shift for the worse (when you first begin to become worried, angry, sad, irritable, or drawn to an addictive behavior, ask yourself “what was I just thinking?". When you catch a catastrophic thought, or another cognitive distortion, write it down, label it and challenge it.


Video on catastrophizing and tips on stopping it

A silly song to help memorize Philippians 4:8

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