Understanding Catastrophizing

This is the first post of a three part series: Understanding Catastrophizing, The Role of Catastrophizing in Chronic Pain, and What Can Be Done About Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing in general is believing that something is worse than it actually is; for example, believing that because you lost your job, you are destined to become homeless and will die a slow, agonizing death. Most of us know that losing your job has little to do with what type of death you will suffer, but catastrophizers can’t necessarily see this separation when they are in the process of catastrophizing.

To catastrophize is to take a situation and exaggerate it to its worst possible finale. The fact that your tire is flat will most likely actually result in about $150 out of your wallet and several hours of aggravation. To a catastrophizer, though, it might represent job loss (because they will need to miss work), a stressed relationship with their child (because they won’t be able to go to the store and get them whatever fill-in-the-blank thing the child needs or wants right now), a ruined weekend (because they will have to use most of their time making up for the time lost at the auto shop), and it will most likely screw up all of next week. It’s like a snowball rolling downhill and trying to intercept it is of little use once it’s begun the descent.

Most of us don’t want to look ahead and guess at what all might go wrong in the future. Who would want to do that? It’s a miserable experience, but someone who is catastrophizing does spend time imagining the worst possible outcome. Unfortunately, it can essentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think that you will fail and be disappointed, you are much more likely to actually fail and be disappointed. Believing that the worst is inevitable could understandably cause someone to become paralyzed and hopeless.

The three hallmark symptoms of catastrophizing are rumination, magnification, and helplessness. Rumination refers to repetitively and continuously obsessing about the various aspects of an upsetting situation. When someone can’t seem to let go of something and seems to be unable to stop talking or thinking about the situation, they are likely ruminating. To magnify is just what it sounds like, to allow a feeling or thought to grow to a proportion bigger than what is logical. Helplessness is also pretty self-explanatory – it is to believe that you do not have the ability to change an upsetting situation.

You can see how catastrophizing about your health, for example, could lead to some pretty poor outcomes. If you obsess about your health while simultaneously enlarging the actual problem in your head and believing that you are helpless to do anything about it…things could (and do) spin out of control quickly.