Catastrophic Thinking: Meaning, Triggers, and Treatment Approaches

Understanding catastrophic thinking is essential in determining its impact on your mental health. By recognizing its meaning, its triggers, and the potential consequences it can have, you can open yourself up to practical strategies and treatment methods used to overcome catastrophic thinking patterns.


What is catastrophic thinking? Catastrophic thinking is a mental health disorder that can negatively impact your mental and physical well-being. With catastrophic thinking, individuals always assume that the worst possible outcome is the most likely thing to occur. Thankfully, you can learn to reduce or stop catastrophic thinking with therapy, medication, and daily tips.

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking and its characteristics

Catastrophic thinking disorder refers to situations where individuals fixate on the worst possible outcome for any situation and assume that the worst possible outcome is the most likely, even if it isn’t. This is a form of cognitive distortion.

For example, some clients might think that if they end up divorced, they will never find love again and they’ll never be happy and be a total failure, whereas other clients might think that if they don’t perform well on a work presentation, they’ll lose their job and never get another job again, never make any money and be a total failure.

Catastrophic thinking, if left untreated, can exacerbate physical and mental health. 

  • If you experience, for example, depressive episodes because of bipolar disorder, you might be more likely to catastrophize your next episode. 
  • If you struggle with chronic pain, you might be more likely to catastrophize feelings of more severe pain.

Differentiating catastrophic thinking from realistic thinking

Several triggers can cause an otherwise realistic individual to struggle with catastrophic thinking.


Depression can cause individuals to ruminate on negative emotions, especially those associated with past events. Previous experiences can significantly shape catastrophic thinking patterns. The more a client ruminates on past failures, relationship issues, or struggles, the more likely they are to catastrophize everything around them.


Anxiety can increase your risk of experiencing catastrophic thinking disorder. Anxiety can be the result of an anxiety disorder or the result of chronic stress. individuals are more likely to struggle with anxiety and jump from realistic thinking to catastrophic thinking if:

  • They are struggling with their relationship
  • They have work-related stress
  • They are experiencing financial strain


Physical health concerns can also lead to catastrophic thinking. If you have ever noticed small pain in your body and done a quick Google search for what your symptoms might indicate, it probably took very few clicks for you to reach the conclusion that you had cancer and were going to die. This is one example of how quickly an individual can go from realistic thinking to catastrophic thinking.

It is also more likely that a client will jump from realistic thinking to catastrophic thinking over health concerns if, for example, they recently had a test done and now their doctor has left a message saying to call them back, or they have a family history of heart disease, and they felt a change in heart rate.

Catastrophic Thinking Disorder

How to manage catastrophic thinking?

You can learn to manage catastrophic thinking with the following:

  1. Use practical approaches on a daily basis.
  2. Integrate relaxation techniques like deep breathing and mindfulness into your daily routine.
  3. Practice stress management strategies, including adequate sleep, exercise, and self-care.
  4. Seek support from mental health professionals or support groups. 

How to stop catastrophic thinking? 

There are several ways that you can learn how to stop catastrophic thinking on your own and with the help of mental health professionals. 

Psychotherapy approaches

If you struggle with a catastrophic thinking disorder, the best thing you can do for yourself is to start a catastrophic thinking treatment. This treatment can include psychotherapy approaches. For many people, Psychotherapy forms the foundation of their treatment plan.

Therapy should be individualized to the client’s needs. You might participate in a combination of individual and group therapy sessions, all of which teach you how to stop catastrophic thinking. Educational groups might provide you and your family with answers to questions like “What is catastrophic thinking?” and give actionable techniques everyone can apply to manage catastrophic thinking.

One of the most common forms of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you identify when you struggle with catastrophic thinking and the impact those automatic, catastrophic thoughts can have on how you feel and how you act. By learning how to manage catastrophic thinking with cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn to be more mindful of your automatic thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts.

When you participate in therapy, you’ll likely be given homework and ways that you can practice your coping techniques in real-time and then reflect on the goals you have reached in your catastrophic thinking treatment. 

Otherwise, you can learn how to stop catastrophic thinking might include dialectical behavioral therapy, an offshoot of cognitive behavioral therapy. This helps to reconcile extreme differences between your thoughts and reality, which might be appropriate for certain clients struggling with catastrophic thinking disorder.


There is no single medication prescribed as part of a catastrophic thinking treatment plan, but when you work with a professional mental health provider, they can discuss medications that might be appropriate for treating underlying conditions that are causing catastrophic thinking. This can include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti Anxiety medications
  • SSRIs
  • Antipsychotics

Practical Tips

If you struggle with catastrophic thinking disorder, you can learn how to manage on a daily basis with practical tips that can be used in conjunction with therapy and medication. Consider the following:

  • Practice mindfulness so that you can turn your attention inward instead of outward.
  • Try yoga or other exercises, where you can focus on your breathing and poses instead of ruminating over the past or worrying about the future.
  • Keep a journal where you can write down the worst-case scenarios that you imagine and how you would deal with them. This helps you recognize that you have a plan, so you don’t need to be anxious or catastrophize over future events or feelings.
  • Say some of your negative thoughts out loud. Sometimes simply saying what you are thinking can help you recognize how irrational your thoughts really are and learn how to stop catastrophic thinking yourself.
How to Stop Catastrophic Thinking

Summing up

Information, if you are struggling with catastrophic thinking disorder, it might be time to integrate practical tips on a daily basis but also consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Catastrophic thinking treatment can help you when your symptoms become overwhelming. Self-awareness and healthy thinking patterns are essential for good mental well-being, but it is always in your best interest to ask for help when you need it.