Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic Thinking

The COVID-19 crisis has been marked by a relentless and sometimes unreliable exposure to news. We are living in the presence of uncertainty, without a sense of direction for recovery. We say “I don’t know” more than not, yet we want to discuss this time of our lives. Most of us feel a heightened sense of anxiety and are frightened about the state of the world and our personal and family safety.

It is human nature, when in the presence of such unknowns and without good solution-focused direction, to resort to negative thoughts. This cognitive pattern is called catastrophic thinking and causes us to jump immediately to the worst-case scenario.  This is an evolutionary response to threat and a survival mechanism, but it gets in the way of problem solving.

We want to feel in charge of our experience as we move through the world. The more our lives feel out of control, the more we use catastrophic thinking to regulate emotions. The anticipation of doom and gloom is not particularly effective, though it provides a dysfunctional way to make decisions.

Oddly, catastrophic thinking leads us to engage in behaviors that become self-fulfilling prophecies. Look at the hoarding of toilet paper. The coronavirus is a respiratory infection, not a gastrointestinal illness.  There is no reason to believe this time period  will cause our colons to explode to the point we will be without basic sanitary needs. The supply line for paper products has not been disrupted.  However, hoarding toilet paper gives us a focus, something we can do, reality-based or not.

So, how can catastrophic thinking be neutralized?

Begin by accepting that we live in a time characterized by insecurity, social distancing, and community tumult.  We have limited control in our lives. Acknowledge this – deliberately – then step back and determine where you are in charge and where you are not. We do this all the time. Think of the last time you were on an airplane. Once you were strapped in, you let go of control and trusted others to oversee a safe trip to your given destination.

Anxiety causes an ancillary feeling of powerlessness. Catastrophic thinking leads us to further exaggerate the severity of the threat and underestimate our personal and collective coping capacities. Work to think in shades of gray rather than in black-and-white. This allows for nuance, options, and possibilities.  Exercising choice, even minor choices, allows for breathing room and a lessens the catastrophic thinking.

Talking helps. Anxiety escalates when we ruminate.  Using words allows thoughts to be connected to feelings.  Our vocal cords connect our heads and hearts.  Conversations about worry and concern may take the edge off catastrophic thoughts.  While many may feel only a small shift, any lessening of distress is welcome.


Jackson Rainer, PhD, is a board certified clinical psychologist practicing psychotherapy at CHRIS Counseling DeKalb.  For an appointment contact [email protected].



Jackson Rainer, PhD.
[email protected]
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