I saw a close friend for lunch recently, shortly after something happened at her place of work. It was one of those things that did the thing where it becomes a thing and the thing escalates to catastrophic proportions in your mind and you can’t get any other things done because you’re consumed by the disastrous impact the thing may have, though likely never will. The thing can be anything really. It can be something you’ve said or done, something someone else has said or done that impacts you or not, something you thought or a mistake you made. Before you know it, you’re spiralling, thinking the worst, convinced your job is lost, the relationship is over, or the sky is falling. 

I don’t know if my friend suffered for hours, minutes, or seconds that felt like a lifetime. By the time I arrived at the restaurant for our lunch, she was already in serious problem solving mode and keeping it together. Still, she smiled at me and asked that I please write my next post about catastrophizing so I quickly got the gist of what went down. Here you go, friend(s)! Note to self: future blog post must focus on the miraculous way women over 50 master problem-solving and keeping it together.

What If?

Catastrophizing can be a symptom or cause of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can lead to debilitating panic attacks, affect your sleep, and impede your ability to function. A 2014 study considered pain catastrophizing as a risk factor for chronic pain after knee surgery and concluded it can actually make physical pain worse and longer lasting. This is a habit most of us would like to eliminate or, at the very least, rein in.

The experience has different stages. It helps to know what stage someone’s at when they’re trying to stop themselves from sinking further or you’re trying to help them stop the spiral. We all know what doesn’t help. It doesn’t help to tell even the most capable person that they’re not going to get fired or that it’s going to be okay or that they’re very strong, even if all those things are true. Once you’ve pushed that snowball of “what ifs” down a steep hill, watched it pick up speed and grow uncontrollably, leaving you gasping for air, feeling as though the world is about to end, rational thought does not penetrate or help.

And, to be fair, assuring someone that their worst case scenario cannot and will not materialize isn’t right. The friend in question is brilliant and exceptionally good at her job. It was unlikely that any scenario would end in her losing it but people can react unpredictably so anything is possible and assurances can be and feel meaningless.

Spoiler alert – my friend solved the disaster and kept her job. We both knew that outcome was likely (she was already mindfully problem solving when I saw her) but it didn’t matter. Catastrophizing still reared its ugliness and took over temporarily, shaking her enough to request this post.

The Reset

Therapy, mindfulness, exercise, and tight hugs (from yourself or another) can all help you regulate and reset when it starts. And breathing. Always breathing. You can take steps to prevent catastrophizing altogether. Some of these steps include journaling, working on accepting uncertainty, problem solving and talking to someone. Most of these recommended strategies are long term and take time to build on. But the next catastrophe – there is always a next catastrophe – might come along before the foundation has set. Is there a quick fix in the meantime?

Catastrophizing is what-iffing gone awry. One tactic that works for many people is to recognize they’ve fallen into their pattern and say “STOP” out loud and forcefully. That kind of awareness can trigger the reaction you need to come back to present. Another quick strategy is to meet the “what ifs” head on. “What if” thinking that hasn’t gone down a rabbit hole (yet) can sometimes be effectively countered by a positive “what if” result. You can respond to “what if I get fired/can’t do it/cry in front of people” with “what if I don’t get fired/can do it/don’t cry in front of people”. Challenging the thoughts may give you the space you need to focus on “what is” rather than “what if”.

But if the snowball is speeding down the mountain, I, for one, am not interested in hearing about a possible positive outcome. I’d rather consider the worst case scenario when I’m thinking the worst. I don’t want to drown in it, just identify it .

Permission to Think the Worst When You’re Thinking the Worst

What if you meet your “what if” with “then” and consider how bad “it” would really be? Sometimes the worse case scenario is just awful and, even then, most of the time, it’s actually something you can live with. By “worse-case scenario-ing” it, you give yourself a chance to breathe, knowing that you’ll survive even if the worst comes to pass. If I’m spiraling to the tune of “What if I can’t do it?” then I consider how bad the outcome will be if I don’t do it. I may feel defeated and the consequences may be serious but my track record for survival is pretty good. In most cases, I can be pretty sure I’ll survive and if I ultimately have to rebuild myself (which I have), that’s what I’ll do.

Somehow, that process can give me the clarity I need to return to “what is” and do whatever I can in the moment. Catastrophizing is a coping mechanism, sometimes maladaptive and sometimes weirdly helpful. For some of us, it’s productive to imagine the worst possible ending and quickly assess it. We may just see that no matter how bad it may sound, we’ll still be here, still intact, and still capable. And then we move forward. And breathe.

Thinking and Trying

Something to think about: “Life delivered me a catastrophe, but I found a richness of soul”. – Michael J. Fox

Something to try: This week’s “Something to Try” comes from psychologist Nick Wignall who suggests naming your catastrophizing brain. That way, you can greet it when it revs up and eventually turn it off. Try the following:

  • Think of a funny, quirky name for your catastrophizing brain. Calamity Cory, Thinking the Worst Thelma, Worst-Case Scenario Wendy, Disaster Dave…
  • And whenever you notice yourself catastrophizing, say hello to them, ‘Sup Calamity Cory, Not you again Disaster Dave
  • The more you practice, the faster you’ll get at this. And eventually, you’ll be identifying your catastrophizing so early that stopping will become much easier. Until then, the silly name may be enough to make you smile or chuckle, which can be enormously effective in and of itself.

Coaching Can Help You De-Catastrophize

Coaching can help you develop a mindfulness practice that keeps you focused on what is rather than what if. Contact me if you’d like to give it a shot or sign up for a free 15-minute discovery call.

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  1. I am the self-proclaimed king of catastrophizing. Part of it comes from having a job that constantly requires me to prepare for and anticipate the worst possible outcome. It sucks.

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