Catastrophizing: How to stop the Anxiety Cycle

Catastrophizing: How to stop the Anxiety Cycle

An anxious person can turn almost anything into a possible catastrophe and catastrophizing is a common occurrence in people that are feeling anxious. It is caused by anxiety but also serves to fuel anxious symptoms. Because of the cyclical worsening that happens with symptoms of anxiety it is important to interrupt this cycle. People often stop living in the moment and spend much of their time worrying about the future.

Have a school exam coming up? Likely you will fail and will end up homeless.

Headache? Definitely a brain tumor....and then starts googling health symptoms (which can make even a non-anxious person panic).

People can catastrophize about finances, friendships, or may jump from one catastrophic thought to the next. Sure, some of these worries might be reasonable at times. But an anxious person will take a small thought and turn it into a huge worry based on very little evidence.

  • "What if I don’t ever get a job?",
  • "If I make the wrong decision it may cause ______ bad thing to happen!",
  • "What if the plane crashes?",
  • "Am I dying?"

Some people with anxiety are overly aware of normal bodily sensations. They may catastrophize any physical symptom they feel. Physical symptoms (for example breathing and heart rate), intermixed with anxiety, are a common driver of panic attacks.

Read more about panic attacks here. This article covers the ways panic attacks are triggered, what happens in the body, and how to interrupt them when they start.

Projecting Worries into the Future

Catastrophizing thoughts are generally not based on current reality but future projections related to worry thoughts. They aren't productive projections and don't cause you to improve your future. It’s energy wasted and not energy spent on improving life.

And projections associated with anxiety are never positive. They don't uplift you or make you feel hopeful. Instead, they cast a shadow of gloom and doom on life and make you feel out of control.

Recognizing Catastrophizing Anxiety is the First Step to Stop it

The first step to stop worrying about the future is to recognize when you are doing it! Some people have been feeling anxious and catastrophizing for so long that it comes naturally to them and it is hard to realize it when it is happening.

Think about your Anxious Symptoms

Take a minute to think about your anxious symptoms and ways that you project into the future. When you are worrying, stop to ask yourself if you are projecting and catastrophizing. The first goal in reducing anxiety is to recognize these catastrophic projections.

  • When you are feeling anxious are you worrying about a future event that you cannot control?
  • Catastrophizing the consequences without evidence to support it?
  • Will your worries help you solve the issue you are anxious about?

To practice managing catastrophizing and anticipatory anxiety download this free PDF. This includes a worksheet that will help you learn to shift thoughts and improve anxiety control.

For a list of self-help resources (websites, apps, books) to treat anxiety in adults and children read this post.

A version of this article first appeared here.

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  • Conor McHale

    Thank you Dr. Welby for the tips

  • Liam Densley

    I feel much better, thx !!

  • Brad Allen

    Must read

  • Stephen Mumford

    Good article

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Melissa (Wheelock) Welby, MD

Healthcare Expert

Dr. Melissa Welby is a psychiatrist that participates in people’s process of discovery, empowerment, and search for satisfaction and happiness. She treats a variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety & panic attacks, adult ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorders), bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and borderline personality disorder. She is also the current president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Association.She completed her Internship & Residency at Cambridge Hospital, affiliate of Harvard Medical School, 2000 to 2004. Dr. Melissa Welby is Board Certified in General Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 2005 to present. 


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