How to defuse catastrophic thoughts

Do you often fear the worst is going to happen? Use these therapeutic techniques to think more rationally and calmly

Illustration by Natsumi Chikayasu





Lucia Tecuta

is a cognitive behavioural therapist and clinical psychologist specialised in rational emotive behaviour therapy, ecotherapy and climate-conscious therapy. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Bologna in Italy conducting research on the relationship between ecological and climate concerns and sustainable behaviours, and she is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance.

Edited by Matt Huston





Need to know

You are getting into your car one morning, about to embark on a long drive, and you hear on the radio that there’s heavy traffic along your route. Suddenly, you’re preoccupied by the thought that you are going to get into a terrible car crash.

At work, you’re about to give a presentation to your colleagues. As they quiet down and you prepare to speak, thoughts about how you’re likely to go completely blank, fumble or stutter – and how awful that would feel – start to bubble up in your head.

After a week in which your significant other has been keeping to themselves more than usual, paying you little attention, you start to think: Is there something wrong with our relationship? Our relationship must be ending… This is a disaster… In this situation, as in the others, the negative thoughts might be accompanied by physical sensations such as sweating, a racing heartbeat, feeling light-headed and dizzy, or feeling a pit in the stomach.

What do these scenarios have in common? They all illustrate a widespread way of thinking that we can call ‘thinking the worst’. These are just a few possible examples; there are countless other situations in which this sort of thinking could appear. Can you recognise it in some of your own, real-life experiences? We all engage in thinking the worst now and then, especially when going through a particularly stressful time.

In more technical terms, this kind of thinking involves what the psychologist Albert Ellis and later the psychiatrist Aaron Beck called catastrophising: that is, imagining the worst-case scenario, jumping to the conclusion that the most catastrophic outcome is surely the one that is most likely to happen or is already happening. A closely related term, awfulising, is commonly used by therapists who practise Ellis’s rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT). While catastrophising refers to unrealistically assuming the worst-case scenario, awfulising refers to believing that a possible negative event is absolutely awful or terrible.

Either on their own or in combination, catastrophising and awfulising can cause you unnecessary distress. What makes them so problematic? Well, as therapists in the tradition of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or REBT will tell you, thoughts elicit emotions. So, you feel a certain way largely because you think certain thoughts. The anxiety and fear you experience are not simply the result of the situation you’re in (eg, getting into a car, giving a presentation, or noticing that your partner seems standoffish), but stem from how you interpret your thoughts in that situation. When these thoughts involve catastrophising and awfulising, the consequences are anxiety, fear and possibly an effort to avoid whatever the situation is.

There are various reasons why you might tend to think the worst

While occasionally having these kinds of thoughts causes little emotional disturbance, if they characterise much of your daily life, they can become quite debilitating, leading you to increasingly limit activities that you think might cause you distress. Catastrophising and awfulising are commonly associated with anxiety disorders, but they may also appear in other conditions in which anxiety is usually present as well, such as depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and stress-related disorders. Most people, whether or not they have a mental health condition, experience this type of thinking pattern at some point in their lives. Understanding that you might be engaging in catastrophising and/or awfulising gives you the opportunity to better understand what’s triggering emotions such as anxiety and fear, and to better manage them.

If you have these kinds of thoughts frequently, do not blame yourself. There are numerous possible reasons why some people tend to think the worst more often than others do. For example, if you grew up with a parent who was very protective and made you feel that the world was dangerous, you might be especially alert to perceived dangers today. Or, you might have been exposed to the idea of vulnerability indirectly, through stories of extreme events. You may have even learned to anticipate the worst-case scenario from direct experiences of painful events, such as unexpected loss due to an accident or illness. Whatever the reasons are, self-blame for having negative thought patterns leads only to additional stress and can hamper efforts to work on negative thinking.

While thinking the worst is unhelpful in the long run, at some point, this tendency likely took hold in your mind because it seemed to be of use and perhaps even helped you in some way. Before it became a chronic style of thinking – leading to avoidance and even greater anxiety – it might have given you a sense of power and control over uncontrollable events. If you have repeatedly heard about frightening car crashes, for example, you may feel as though imagining the worst-case scenario will make you a more careful driver.

Thinking the worst is frequently part of what brings people into therapists’ offices. In my own therapy practice, I’ve encountered many clients who struggled with this kind of thinking, whether it related to everyday social situations, their ongoing relationships or health (their own or others’). It is not too hard to identify and target catastrophising and awfulising, and they are ultimately very manageable. With psychological tools from CBT and REBT, such as the ones I will share in this Guide, and with plenty of practice, you can learn to challenge these distressing thoughts and reduce their influence over your feelings and behaviour. In doing so, you can also learn to be more accepting of uncertainty about how situations will actually turn out – and build faith in your ability to deal with what life throws at you.

What to do

Identify when you are thinking the worst

The first step in dealing with an overly negative thought is to identify that thought. This might seem like a given, but if you are very accustomed to this kind of thinking, it can become difficult to distinguish it from healthy thoughts. Additionally, sometimes thinking is so fast and automatic that you can be almost unaware of what, exactly, you are thinking.

One easy way to identify whether you are catastrophising or awfulising is by the anxiety and fear you feel in the moment when you are entertaining a thought. These thinking patterns often begin with catastrophic ‘what if’ thoughts (eg, What if my child falls down the stairs and hits their head?, What if that pain in my stomach is cancer?, What if my boyfriend is cheating on me?) or with an unpleasant image of something bad happening. These may be followed by an even more distressing thought, such as My boyfriend must be cheating on me, and ultimately end up in awfulising, such as saying to yourself: This is awful or That would be the worst thing that could happen.

Once you notice that you are saying something negative to yourself about the situation you are in (or a situation you could end up in), and that it’s making you feel anxious, write down the thought. Usually, catastrophising and awfulising thoughts tend to be inflexible, absolutistic and lacking in details. Therefore, to identify them, you can ask yourself:

  • Am I thinking about the feared scenario in a very rigid and repetitive way?
  • Is the thought I’m having very black and white, such that it seems there is only one possible (awful) outcome?
  • Is the thought generic, rather than including specific details?

Let’s look at some examples from before. In the case of the feared traffic collision, if the thought you’re having is I’m going to be badly injured in a car crash, that thought is rigid if it tends to present itself in the same way every time it comes to mind. Further, the quality of the thought is very black and white. You imagine that, if you get into a collision, you’ll be badly injured, when in reality people often leave such events unscathed or only slightly hurt.

Finally, the thought is also generic, because you don’t identify how the feared event will happen (is a truck going to hit you from behind? Will you lose control of the steering wheel and end up hitting some trees?) The circumstances are usually quite nebulous when we are in catastrophic thinking or awfulising territory.

In the scenario where a romantic partner seems emotionally distant, the thought that your relationship is ending is certainly black and white. It does not allow for any alternative possibilities, whether in interpreting what’s going on with the partner (maybe they are just very stressed and tired because of work), what the partner feels toward you (maybe they don’t want to annoy you with work problems) or the outcome of it all (maybe this won’t last long or, if it does, you could sort it out by talking).

You can also identify the element of awfulising – which, again, is believing that the imagined scenario is absolutely terrible – by simply noticing whether you tell yourself something like This would be so awful/terrible/the worst thing that could happen to me.

Dispute the thought

Once you’ve identified a thought that seems to involve catastrophising and/or awfulising, it’s time to challenge it. There are multiple approaches you can use to do this.

One of the strategies involves challenging the accuracy of the thought, or ‘looking for the evidence’. This has also been called an empirical dispute. It involves asking yourself: how probable is this exact outcome that I have in mind? What is the evidence that this is going to happen/is happening? When a thought is troubling you, take a moment to consider these questions. Most likely, if you are having a catastrophising thought, the answers are that the feared outcome is unlikely (even if it is possible), and that there is little to no evidence of the outcome actually occurring.

Another strategy, which can be useful for disputing thoughts that have an awfulising element (eg, That would be terrible), aims to help you realise that you can accept the possibility of even bad outcomes. Given that feared outcomes can never be totally eliminated as possibilities, Ellis argued that uncertainty is something we need to accept and live with in order to be emotionally healthy. For this reason, he suggested disputing the awfulising belief. First, you can ask yourself: if this outcome (although extreme and imagined) were to happen, would it really be the most awful and terrible thing that could happen to me? Are there worse things I can think of? Probably more than one will come to mind and, as they do, the circumstance you fear may begin to seem less terrible than it did initially. (Ellis would even go so far as to dispute the awfulness of dying – since it is, well, part of life.)

A further disputing technique identified by Ellis and practised in REBT is the pragmatic dispute. This form of thought-disputing asks: how does this thought help me? Does thinking this serve me? And, usually, the answer is ‘no’ – in which case, you might see that it’s time to let the thought go. In fact, most of the time thinking the worst does the opposite of helping. For example, will dwelling on how awful a car crash would be actually help you avoid an accident? Probably not; you’re likely to be more alert when you are calmly focused on the road, rather than on an imagined worst-case scenario. Will thinking I will be terrible during this speech help you stay focused and give an effective speech? What about thinking My relationship is probably doomed; how terrible – will that really help you deal with any possible issues?

Finally, the logical dispute essentially asks: does this thought process make logical sense? Usually, there are some gaps in logic when it comes to awfulising and catastrophising. For example, you may want to give a stellar speech at work; but, even if your speech doesn’t go perfectly, it doesn’t follow that the consequences must be ‘terrible’. Nowhere is it written that it is awful to give imperfect speeches.

When you’ve identified an especially bothersome catastrophic or awfulising thought, practise applying each of these disputing techniques. It’s a great exercise to get them all down, adding each of these tools to your toolbox. Then, if you notice that one or two particular disputing techniques are more effective for you, more convincing and more easily reduce your emotional disturbance, make a mental note to return to those techniques to help you handle similar disturbing thoughts in the future.

Replace the thought with a more realistic and rational one

To dispel a catastrophic or awfulising thought, after disputing it with the above techniques, it’s often helpful to formulate an alternative, rational thought. The rational thought is not necessarily a positive thought, but rather a more realistic, flexible and less distress-inducing one.

The new, alternative thought acknowledges: 1) that the feared scenario is probably not the most likely one; and 2) that, even if it came to pass, it would probably not be as bad as you feared. So perhaps, in the car scenario, after you’ve disputed the thought that you will likely get into a crash, and that it would be terrible, you could think to yourself: A collision is unlikely to happen. However, should it happen, it would be unfortunate, but not the worst thing that could happen to me. Similarly, in the relationship scenario, you might tell yourself: My relationship is probably not in danger at this very moment and, if it actually were, that would be painful and upsetting, but I would most likely be able to deal with it.

The goal of the alternative thought is to transform the challenging emotion of anxiety into a more manageable form of ‘concern’. It’s not meant to eliminate the negative emotion altogether, but rather to turn an unhealthy negative emotion into a healthy one. As REBT teaches us, healthy negative emotions are a fundamental aspect of the human experience. It can be helpful to repeat the new thought out loud to yourself when the original, distressing thought pops up, or even to write it down on a piece of paper to read when the distressing thought comes to mind.

As you think, verbalise or read the more rational thought, pay attention to how your body feels, compared with when you endorsed the previous, less rational thought. When you feel something more like concern rather than anxiety, and are in a less distressed state, you will likely be better able to handle the situation at hand: taking that car ride, giving that speech or perhaps talking to your partner about your concerns.

Don’t get too discouraged if your more rational thoughts don’t stick right away. You are working to rewire your brain, and it takes lots of practice, patience and self-compassion. It may not come naturally at first and you might not feel that the new thoughts are valid. But the more you dispute your negative thoughts and try to reformulate your thinking, the more flexible it becomes – making negative thinking less likely to be your go-to.

In REBT or CBT, people commonly keep a diary for jotting down the events that activate distressing thoughts; the content of those thoughts; the emotional and behavioural consequences of the thoughts; and their new, alternative thoughts. You might find it helpful to write down these details as you practise identifying and replacing thoughts, and to look them over whenever you are going through a difficult moment to see examples of thoughts you’ve handled before.

Think about what the feared scenario would actually be like

An additional strategy is called ‘imaginal exposure’. If you are worrying about something you fear happening, you can go ahead and imagine your worst-case scenario. This is useful if the scenario has not happened to you before and it is truly hypothetical. Note: if the feared situation is something potentially traumatic that has happened to you before, any exposure to the traumatic memory should be guided by a mental health professional within the context of well-planned intervention. More generally, it can be helpful to have a professional’s guidance if imagined events involve sexual, violent, disgusting or degrading content.

If you’d like to try this approach, ask yourself, what would happen, exactly? You can picture the scenario as if it were a scene in a movie:

  • Where are you standing or sitting?
  • What do you see and hear?
  • What do you feel?
  • What exactly would need to happen for this scenario to come true?

For example, if you fear messing up a speech, you might ask yourself how long you think you would stutter. Would it be during the entire speech or just the opening? Who, specifically, do you imagine would stare at you and negatively judge you? What would they say to you, realistically, during the speech or after – if anything? What do you imagine them thinking? Would you react the same way if the tables were turned and they gave a flawed speech? If this did happen to you, could you take a deep breath and a sip of water, sort your thoughts and start the speech over? Could you learn to live with whatever happened next?

It’s easy to feel paralysed by an imagined worst-case scenario without actually thinking it through. Imagining the scenario in more detail helps you accomplish a few things. First, it can help you to realise how improbable or unrealistic the scenario might be. It also gives you a chance to imagine how you could get through the feared event. Finally, it exposes you mentally to the feared situation, and this allows you to feel the anxiety associated with it naturally rise and fall within minutes, as it should. In many cases, the more you expose yourself to feared situations – imaginally or in real life – the lower the fear you will experience along with it. This is called ‘habituation’, and it is a key mechanism behind so-called exposure therapies for anxiety-related disorders. Practising imaginal exposure to a hypothetical worst-case scenario can, with repetition (and, where necessary, the support of a mental health professional), lessen its emotional impact.

Key points – How to defuse catastrophic thoughts

  1. The tendency to think the worst is common and manageable. You can learn to spot and defuse what therapists call catastrophising (assuming the worst-case scenario is happening or will happen), as well as awfulising (believing a possible event is absolutely awful or terrible). Both cause unnecessary distress.
  2. There are various reasons why you might tend to think the worst. It may stem from life experiences and/or it could be related to anxiety. Perhaps thinking the worst has seemed helpful in some way. It’s important not to blame yourself for having these thoughts.
  3. Identify when you are thinking the worst. Ask yourself if a thought you’re having about a feared outcome is rigid, unrealistic, black and white, or lacking specificity, or if you’re thinking it’s ‘the worst thing that could happen’.
  4. Dispute the thought. Use disputing techniques such as asking whether the thought is based on evidence, whether thinking it does you any good, or whether the feared outcome really is the worst thing that could happen.
  5. Replace the thought with a more realistic and rational one. You can think, say aloud and even write down a message that acknowledges that the feared scenario is probably not the most likely or logical one, and that you could manage, even if it happened.
  6. Think about what the feared scenario would actually be like. If it’s something that’s never happened to you before, imagining it in detail could help you see how unlikely it is and how you could deal with it – and it may help reduce your fear.

Learn more

Making it easier to dispute thoughts with grounding techniques

Sometimes people get so worked up, and the anxiety is so overwhelming, that it is more difficult than usual to dispute troubling thoughts. What you can do in these instances is first focus on calming your body and distancing yourself from the thoughts. You can do this in a number of ways, all of which fall under the category of ‘grounding’. Grounding involves shifting your attention to aspects of the present moment, often to the body and the senses.

Grounding techniques are valuable as they can assist in creating emotional distance from an experience. When distressing thoughts come up unexpectedly, the brain’s instinctive reaction is often to trigger the involuntary physiological response known as ‘fight or flight’. While this response serves to safeguard individuals by preparing them to confront or flee danger, there are many times when the perception of threat is not entirely accurate. In such moments, grounding techniques help by enabling the body to regain composure and allowing you to recognise the absence of an actual threat.

Some effective ways to ground yourself are by: 1) taking control of your breathing with a focus on slowing it down; and 2) using your senses to connect to the ‘here and now’.

Grounding through breathing

In one technique, called ‘square’ or ‘box’ breathing, you alternate between inhaling, holding your breath, exhaling, and holding again – each step to the same count of your choosing (eg, four seconds). As you do this, you can also visualise a square, imagining that you are drawing one of its sides for each step. Check out this video for an audiovisual presentation of the technique that you can use as you try it out.

Grounding with your senses

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique helps to anchor you to the present moment by reconnecting you with all five senses, one after another, through the act of naming:

  • Five things you can see: take a moment to observe your surroundings and identify five objects or elements within your field of vision. These can range from nearby things such as your phone or a wall to more distant ones such as a row of buildings or the sky.
  • Four things you can feel: pay attention to your body and its sensations. You might reflect on things like how the air feels on your skin, how your feet feel on the ground, how an item of clothing feels, and so on until you’ve noted four sensations. Try to describe them to yourself.
  • Three things you can hear: direct your attention to the sounds in your environment. Notice and name three distinct sounds, whether it’s birds chirping, construction noises or the hum of the refrigerator.
  • Two things you can smell: see what odours you can detect in your immediate environment, or move around, if needed, to find some. If you’re unable to move from where you are, simply recall and name two scents that you particularly enjoy.
  • One thing you can taste: perhaps you can still taste the remnants of your most recent meal or beverage. If you’d like, you can have a piece of candy or a mint at this step, focusing on the flavours you perceive.

Grounding yourself in the present moment using these or other techniques can help you to access a calmer physical and emotional state. Once you are there, it becomes easier to do the work of identifying unhelpful thoughts, disputing them, and reformulating them into more helpful ones.

Links & books

This video offers a thorough discussion of the concept of awfulising by two REBT experts, Windy Dryden and Steve A Johnson.

The helpful book How to Control Your Anxiety Before it Controls You (1997) by the REBT developer Albert Ellis focuses on how to deal with anxiety and irrational beliefs as conceptualised in the REBT framework. It also conveys his humorous approach to life.

A book The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution (2nd ed, 2023) by David A Clark and Aaron T Beck presents approaches from CBT – with the aid of exercises and worksheets – to help readers with a variety of problems related to anxiety, including catastrophic thinking.

The Psychology Today blog post ‘The Catastrophising Cure’ (2020) by the psychologist Debbie Joffe Ellis provides some clear and concise guidance on dealing with irrational thinking – including catastrophising and awfulising – during challenging and uncertain times.

In the episode ‘What to Do When Everything Looks Like a Catastrophe?’ (2022) of the No Stupid Questions podcast, the co-hosts Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth talk about the nature of catastrophising and the challenge of distinguishing between realistic and unrealistic threats.





23 August 2023