Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking can be recognised in individuals who repeatedly overestimate the potential dangers or negative implications of future events to occur (either in themselves or their loved ones). Catastrophic thinkers will often predict the worst case scenarios coming true that others would consider unrealistic and irrational. When these “what if” thoughts enter the individual’s mind assessing the potential dangers of events, they typically experience heightened levels of distress and will ruminate on these worries. As the physical symptoms of anxiety grow in intensity (increased heart rate, nervous sweating, racing thoughts), it only reinforces the belief that their (irrational) thoughts are real and will come to fruition. If catastrophic thinking is not managed appropriately, the incessant anxiety can significantly interfere with all aspects of an individual’s life – including their relationships, their concentration levels and their ability to carry out everyday tasks, and in some cases can lead to full blown panic attacks. More often than not, an individual’s catastrophic thoughts may prevent them – or in fact their loved ones, from engaging in a range of activities, for their overarching fear that the risk involved is too great and their imagined scenario(s) will come true. The bottom line is, if an individual’s unwarranted and negative catastrophic predictions are left untreated, it can place significant restrictions on their overall quality of life and psychological wellbeing.

The important thing to remember is, life is full of risks. While most people experience “what if” thoughts assessing the potential threats involved in their day to day lives, they are able to make rational judgements as to whether the threat involved is likely to occur, and can dismiss these thoughts as “just” thoughts and resume their daily duties (risks and all).

Frustrated - Catastrophic Thinking

What are the symptoms?

While the symptoms of catastrophic thinking will vary for each individual, the common theme across all cases involves an individual’s excessive rumination on their own unsubstantiated predictions, exaggerating the likelihood of negative events to occur. Catastrophic thinking is common across most types of anxiety disorders. Some common examples include:

  • Falsely predicting that they may be having a heart attack after noticing an increase in their heart rate
  • Over thinking the worst possible outcome to occur in a social situation where they predict they will automatically be judged negatively by others
  • Worrying that may have left an electrical appliance on after leaving the house and fearing that they may burn down the house or even the neighbourhood
  • Being excessively overprotective of their loved ones (eg: not allowing their children to participate in sports for fear that they may be severely hurt during a game which could cause irreversible damage)
  • Not driving a car in city traffic for fear that they may be involved in a collision or not travelling on a train for fear that the train will derail off the tracks
  • Being hyper critical of others actions – (eg: falsely assuming that their partner has left them or is not being faithful if they did not answer their call immediately; or fearing that their loved one may be seriously hurt if they are late to a prearranged meeting time)
  • Fear of losing control in front of others (eg: lack of control of impulse driven behaviour involving harmful or inappropriate actions or statements towards others)

    sick woman with sudden heart attack symptom

What causes it?

While the underlying cause of catastrophic thinking and excessive anxiety are yet to be discovered, there are many aspects to consider that may influence its onset and these will vary largely across individuals – including their genetic predisposition, the sum of their life experiences (including any past traumatic events) and their exposure to their environment.

How is treated?

The first and hardest step for treating catastrophic thinking is recognising the need for help and knowing that it is available and within reach. The most effective form of treatment for tackling catastrophic thinking is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). During CBT, the individual works with a specialising psychologist to help them identify and differentiate between their irrational and rational thoughts (cognitions). From here, GRADUAL exposure therapy can be introduced with the guidance and ongoing support provided by their therapist, helping them to challenge their irrational thought patterns and replace these with more realistic, evidence based cognitions. Throughout treatment, individuals will learn and acquire various skills and relaxation techniques to help them manage their unhelpful emotions more effectively, so they can apply these to the various stressful situations that life throws at them – helping them to live life to their full potential.

Our recommend therapist at Anxiety House…

Dr Kris Ojala – Clinical PsychologistDr Kris Ojala

What is your experience?

  • Clinical psychologist for ten years working predominantly with anxiety and OCD
  • He has extensive experience in facilitating OCD group programs for both children and adults
  • He has conducted professional development workshops on the treatment of OCD and anxiety both nationally and internationally).
  • Enjoys working with children and families to create a team approach to understanding and managing emotional distress.
  • Has developed targeted programs for assisting boys in building confidence and self- belief during the transition to manhood.
  • Completed his studies in Psychology at Griffith University, including Honours in Psychology and his PhD in Clinical Psychology.
  • Utilises a positive psychology approach and incorporates a blend of CBT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Motivational Interviewing.




Sophie Lucas is our Anxiety House blogger and is studying Bachelor of Communications at UQ. Sophie is passionate about anxiety recovery and loves to write about research and provide EDUCATION about anxiety. Sophie and Director Dr Emily O’Leary carefully think about each topic and try and provide the most up to date information. We have a number of scheduled blogs coming up, but we really want to hear your IDEAS! What topics would YOU like to know more about?

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