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Catastrophizing Within a Catastrophe

Many people with anxiety right now are not dealing with a catastrophe for the first time; they may have imagined this pandemic or other catastrophic events within their minds many times before. In the mental health field, we call this line of thinking catastrophizing, a cognitive distortion where a person tends to jump to the worst-case scenario when thinking about the future. But just because we’re living in a catastrophe doesn’t mean that the catastrophizing stops here. If you’re already prone to catastrophic thinking, here are some things to consider:

  • Our minds can always create a new “worst-case scenario.” Maybe two months ago you imagined the worst-case scenario being that you would have to work from home. Now that that outcome has likely occurred, your mind may anticipate a new worst-case scenario, like losing your job. This type of thinking can lead you into a spiral where your anxiety continues to up the ante.

  • It’s important to check the facts. There is a lot of speculation about what the coming weeks and months will hold. While this can sometimes be valuable in terms of preparing for what’s to come, it can become unhelpful when we are predicting outcomes that may never happen and therefore wasting our already-depleted mental resources. To this end, if you’re prone to catastrophic thinking, it might be helpful to avoid speculative news articles about the future and instead stick to facts about the here-and-now.

  • Try your best to stay present. Catastrophizing is all about “what ifs” and future-focused thinking. One way to combat this is to remember that the “what ifs” haven’t happened yet. You can try staying present by using mindfulness or grounding techniques.

If you’re noticing yourself struggling with catastrophic thinking, bring it up with your therapist, who can help you find techniques to combat these thoughts.


Bethany Kriegel, LMHC, earned her master’s degree in mental health counseling from Boston College. She has experience working with adults in residential treatment settings, helping those struggling with eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other issues.

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