Five Steps To Stop Catastrophizing And Live An Exceptional Life

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles…
by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.

– Mark Twain

Catastrophic thinking is the imagination run amuck, worry heightened to the power of ten.  It happens when we allow our emotions to dictate how and what we think.  It happens when we focus or dwell on the worst possible outcome of something.  It happens when we obsess.

“I will look like a fool if I mess up this presentation.”

“My boss didn’t show any enthusiasm over my proposal.  What if I get fired?”

“She, or he, is going to leave me. “

“I haven’t heard from my friend in a long time.  What did I do wrong?”

“What if I have a home invasion?”

“I’ve had a stomach ache for days.  I probably have an incurable disease.”

“What if a terrorist targets the shopping mall when I’m there?”


Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking is worry heightened to the power of ten. These 5 steps can help you cope with whatever life throws your way.


Catastrophic Thinking: Where Does It Come From?

In the simplest of terms, catastrophic thinking occurs when a person views a future event in the worst possible light and believes, REALLY believes that if it should happen, he, or she, cannot cope.

Dr. Patrick Keelan, a psychologist, says that catastrophic thinking happens when we overestimate danger and underestimate our ability to cope with the perceived danger.

Let’s first examine the bleak belief of the inability to cope.  At the beginning of my workshops, I always ask: “Is there anyone who has not been able to cope with what life throws their way?  The surprising answer is “no.”  Almost everyone realizes that, given whatever occurred, they are survivors; they have indeed been able to cope with what life throws their way, as have you.

Emotional maturity is embracing this reality AND believing that you can cope with whatever life throws your way.

Catastrophic thinking is THINKING WITHOUT REASON, IMAGINING WITHOUT CLEAR FORESIGHT and FANTASIZING WITHOUT FACT.  Without harnessing the reins of the imagination, catastrophic thinking can be totally destructive to mind, body and spirit.

Imagine that your smoke detector goes off.  Your fear is triggered (naturally) and you visualize your house burning down, your valuables being lost, your pet and children being harmed.  Without bothering to investigate, you call the fire department who call the police who call the ambulance.  Only after the chaos settles down, you discover you had a defective battery in your smoke detector.  It is possible there might have been a real issue.  However, failing to take a deep breath and thinking things through, you have set yourself up for anxiety, stress and emotional pain.

Before proceeding, please consider: “Are you causing your own suffering with catastrophic thinking?”

By imagining the event as already occurring, you are experiencing the pain of it actually occurring.  You have created your emotional pain out of an illusion!


FACT ALERT: The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined experience. Once imagined, it triggers your conscious thoughts, pictures, images and self-talk.


As you may know from my writings, “the subconscious rules!”  Therefore, learn to control your imagination. Your conscious mind, your ability to visualize is the way to influence the powerful subconscious.

Let’s suppose you or someone you know does think catastrophically.  What can be done about it?  First, dismiss the idea of using will power.  One of the most self-defeating paths you can take is to ‘try’ to talk yourself out of catastrophic thinking.  It simply doesn’t work.


Here Are 5 Steps To Help You Manange Catastrophic Thinking

So what can you do?  First, get real!!!!  I mean just that.  Learn strategies that help you see things as they are, not as you fear they will be.

  1. Identify what is working in your life now.
    List at least three areas of your life that are positive: job, relationship, health, creative endeavors, an enjoyable hobby, etc.  Focusing on the small, positive aspects of life shifts the perception that everything is doomed.
  1. Watch the words you use.
    I remember my mother had a peculiar way of communicating when she was in fear.  Whenever something was apparently going wrong in the world, like the Cuban missile crisis, guerilla fighting in Ireland, and the conflict in Vietnam, my mother would say, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket!”

    While I understood her concern, my teenage mind responded, “That just doesn’t make sense.”  So, pay attention to the words you use, such as “It will always be like this. “  “Nothing is ever going to change.”  “I have no choice.”

  1. Monitor your self-talk.
    The catastrophic event that has started to bubble and brew in your mind starts with your self-talk.  “I will fail because I can’t give a presentation in front of a group.”  “Nothing ever goes right for me.”

    Awareness of your negative self-talk gives you the edge to re-frame your thinking to a more positive view.  Once you are aware of ‘gloom and doom’ inner dialogue bubbling up, simply say to yourself, “STOP IT!” or “NO! I WILL NOT GO THERE.”  It really is that simple to get your inner balance back.

  1. Use catastrophic thinking as a roadmap to positive preparation.
    Next, get real!  Catastrophic thinking happens when you overestimate the plausibility of a negative event happening and underestimate your ability to cope with it.

    Catastrophizing a future is being out of control. When you give yourself even a modicum of perceptual control, catastrophic thinking mutes, anxiety lessons and the lens of fear clears.

    As momentarily horrifying as it might be, imagine or predict the negative events that ignite your catastrophic thinking. What specifically will happen? For how long would it be terrible?

    Jump in to the future. Pretend for a moment that you got through this event. How would you know it?  What would it look like?

    Make a list of pro-active steps, actions or strategies that can help you prepare for the outcome you most fear.

    Mentally rehearse preparing for this event using the steps, actions or strategies you list.

  1. Talk your fear through with someone who is practical and realistic.
    Identifying and examining a fear diminishes the grip of the fear.

    There is no better way to put the brakes on catastrophizing than to dialogue with someone you trust, who will not judge and knows how to ask the right questions to help you gain a fresh perspective and lower your anxiety. Just venting and having someone listen for a short period of time can help you see the situation in a realistic way. Personally, talking a fear-based scenario through with a person I trust, a good listener, has helped me not only stop living in a fearful future but also see solutions.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen.  Keep in the sunlight.”

Follow these five strategies and turn catastrophic thinking into empowering thinking.



James Mapes is a best-selling author, founder of Quantum Leap Thinking, speaker, performance coach, clinical hypnotist and award-winning performer.