One of the strangest words you might come across in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is 'catastrophisation'. This strange yet necessary word (which spell checkers do not like at all!) was coined to describe what is a common and unhelpful thinking style.
Catastrophising means that when we are experiencing something we don't like, we can develop a tendency to exaggerate the badness of the situation into something far worse than it really is. Have you ever caught yourself describing a situation as 'terrible', 'awful', 'disastrous', 'end of the world'? If so, there you have a type of catastrophising in action. As emotional beings, we all tend to throw words around like this. It becomes a real problem, though, when you come up against difficulties in life.
Such an unhelpful thinking style is closely linked to anxiety, depression and other unhealthy negative emotions as these types of thoughts feed the badness of a situation which might already be causing you problems. And watch out - we can use this style of thinking to describe current, past or future events, fuelling any emotional storm we may be experiencing.
To help you to understand this in greater detail, it might helpful to consider an example. Then we can go on to think about how to counteract this way of thinking...
Let's imagine someone was anxious about a forthcoming exam situation. They might have a chain of thoughts which goes like this: "I've got an exam coming up... I've not done as much revision as I'd like. If I fail, this is going to be awful. In fact this would be a disaster." This line of thinking then encourages further worry thoughts, and vivid imaginings of how 'terrible' this could be... it might lead a person to picture all their friends at a party celebrating while they remain home alone, their family judging them badly, or even imagining themselves unhappy and working in a job in which they can get no satisfaction for the rest of their lives.
Put simply, we may say that someone is taking a bad situation and magnifiying it into the worst possible outcome. When we have a situation which is meaningful to us and we don't get what we want, we can get into a habit of catastrophising the situation. We can even believe this to be truly awful. And because our minds are ridiculously creative, we can visualise scenarios which go beyond reality. This adds to any original emotional distress and makes it harder and harder to think of things we could do to help ourselves to cope.
Once we start build on the original threat or disappointing situation, and we start to repeatedly tell ourselves how awful a situation could be, we might even begin to believe it. It's not our fault that this happens, it's the way our minds try to deal with threats. Constant worry leads to catastrophising an experience and undesirable life events can lead us to make assumptions about how we expect things to turn out.
To turn catastrophisation, we first need to become aware of when we are giving ourselves these messages. Your brain is listening to what you say all the time, and it will react as if these words and thoughts are true, switching on stress hormones and increasing your negative emotional reaction. The key to moving away from these unhelpful thinking styles is to practise catching yourself in the act of these thinking habits. Habits can be changed with practice, repetition and effort.
Once you have spotted that this is something you might be prone to, you can learn to question these thoughts. It can be helpful to ask yourself questions such as the following:
- How helpful is this thought?
- Where does this thought lead?
- If I didn't believe this thought, how would I feel differently or how would I act differently?
- How realistic is this thought?
- What is the real likelihood that this catastrophic thought will come to pass?
- What is the most likely outcome?
- Have I thought this way before, and what was the outcome then?
- How would you reassure a very good friend or loved one who was thinking this way?
- What is a more helpful, balanced and supportive thought which I could choose instead?
These kinds of questions are the kinds of questions which lead to productive lines of thinking and help you to reverse a tendency towards catastrophising situations.
Being curiously aware of your thoughts will pay off with practice. It will help you to avoid the perils of catastrophisation as well as other unhelpful thinking styles...
You can find other articles about unhelpful thinking styles here:
Ali Binns works as a CBT therapist in Bath. She helps clients to become aware of their unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and find ways of challenging or managing these in order to feel better emotionally.