Mental Help Net
Anxiety Disorders
Basic Information
What is Anxiety?The Biopsychosocial Model of AnxietyDevelopment & Maintenance of Anxiety DisordersClassification & Diagnosis of Anxiety DisordersAnxiety Disorder Theories and TherapiesTreatment of Anxiety DisordersAnxiety Disorder References & Additonal Resources
More InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersBlog EntriesVideosLinksBook ReviewsSelf-Help Groups
Therapist Search
Find a Therapist:
 (USA/CAN only)

Use our Advanced Search to locate a therapist outside of North America.

Related Topics

Depression: Depression & Related Conditions
Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorders
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Emotional Resilience
View the Depression Primer - an illustrated book about Depression

Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Catastrophizing Controlling Your Life: 3 Steps to Break Free

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: May 29th 2009

 I feel compelled to write about this as I am seeing more and more people coming in with great worries about the future and not only is it tying their bodies up in knots, but it is also taking them away from living their lives right here, right now. This habitual act of catastrophizing needs to be put in check.

So what is it?

Catastrophizing is a style of thinking that amplifies anxiety. This style of thinking expects disaster. We may be looking at a situation or challenge that is facing us and then automatically imagine the worst possible thing that could happen. The mind continues this with the what if's game. This is when our minds go on and on about what if this worst case scenario happens. Some of us may do more of this than others.

In a time when there seems to be so much uncertainty it is easy for the mind to start the what if's game. What if the economy doesn't recover, what if I lose my job, what if North Korea becomes a nuclear power, what if I lose my mind? We play this game everywhere we go and then wonder where the time has gone later in life. It's time to reclaim our lives!

Here are 3 things you can do to come back to the present moment and get a reality check on life.

  1. Acknowledge Catastrophizing - The first step to doing anything is awareness of what is happening. We must first notice and acknowledge when our mind is spinning with worry about the future. Then label it catastrophizing or worrying, whichever word works best for you. The trick is not to get caught up in the content; we'll get to that later.

  2. Anchor the present moment - There are a myriad of ways to do this. Many people like to use the breath as an anchor because it is always with us and keeps us alive. So you can bring your attention to this and just saying to yourself, "in" as your breath comes in, and "out" as your breath goes out. If this is too difficult, you can bring attention to the bottom or your feet (farthest place from your worrying mind) and just notice factual sensations. You can even just choose to close your eyes and listen to sounds, noticing the pitches and tones rising and falling.

  3. Intentionally play the what if's game - This is very different than the mind spinning about this. Actually ask yourself, "what if this happened?" Think about it and then provide and answer. With that answer, you may have another "what if" question, and intentionally ask and answer that one. Go ahead and do this until there are no more questions. It often helps to write this down.

Go ahead and try this to work with the catastrophic mind. As always, please share your thoughts, comments, and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

grandma - - Feb 19th 2015

I just learned that this anxiety issue has a name. My therapist suggested googling catastrophising. 

I suffered from agoraphobia for years because of the " what if" problem. It is good to know that other people have the same issues. It causes you to miss out of a lot of otherwise joyful moments. My major fear is what if I get sick.  If anyone has overcome this specific fear please reply.

coldfeet - art - Dec 12th 2012

im 36, have survived an unhappy and tormented childhood with a dad with serious temper issues often on the lines of violence. i have survived the break-up and divorce from my childhood married again and a mother of a preschooler, i have one thing that i simply dont have courage for: driving. im a succesful professional, a part time artist, not a bad homemaker...but when ever im in the drivers seat, i get cold feet and my breath chokes...does it have anything to do with my past?

Horrible - Idiot - Oct 23rd 2012

On the outside, or when I'm not in a state of hypersensitivity I am a very laid back guy. Too laid back. Perhaps I'm the type of guy that avoids confrontation, I don't bare a grudge. I used to be so care free.

I can see that persona ebbing away gradually. It was triggered after a night out. I blanked out and didn't get home until the early hours. I convinced myself I'd been sexually assaulted (I'm a guy) I went to the docs and got checked out for signs. Nothing. I was still fixated on the worse case scenario so started googling HIV symptoms... Coincidentally I fell I'll with mumps.. This triggered an obsessive 10 months that almost destroyed my life. I tested every week convinced test would change. It then dawned on me.. Perhaps nothing did happen. I was absolutely aware of how irrational I was being. The anxiety was incredible. 

I think this triggered things. If I go out I'm watching for movement around me in case I get jumped. The other day a woman I know said shed been attacked by a man on a night out. I had seen her, so I began assuming it must have been me.. Even though I could remember nearly everything (I don't go out a lot, really, maybe 5 times ayear, I'm a personal trainer)

if I hear a bang on the door I jump out my skin. I am in a state of hyper vigilance. 

I see a solution in rebalancing the mind and body together. I have started writing down my concerns, had some CBT. Sympathetic dominance means I must have excessive cortisol, probably depleted serotonin, so I'm supplementing: omega 3, magnesium, 5 HTP, Zinc and holy basil. Trying to turn off my stress response and rebuild my brain. It has helped, a lot! Everything in science can be explained along a continuim. Stay strong guys. It's in your head, you'll get better, I hope. I pray I do too!

catastrophizing - Mandy - Feb 19th 2011

I noticed most of these posts are very old so I don't know if this will even be read, but I did want to reach out.  I was diagnosed bipolar a few years ago at age 58 (I'm now 62) and really had no anxiety of any kind until after that first mania, and only very mild dysphoric mania since.  What I have had is major anxiety  and right now it is of the type mentioned above-I see myself in all of it.  I am suddenly out of a job and faced with two very bad choices of where I should live, what to do with my pets, and the possibility now of a part time job that I may/may not be able to work.  I find all of this "unknown" to be a major part of my thinking....I am terrified to "make a mistake" in any decesion because it affects my life from here on out-every person (and this includes professionals-social workers, pdocs, therapists, is giving me different advice and I'm just spinning-and unfortunately find I trust no one.  Even following the plan outline above seems to have little affect-Xanax helps but I'm scared to take too much because it will stop working.  Any more ideas?  Since my work (when I can work) involves small children I sometimes cannont take the time away to do some of the exersises.

Am I going nuts? - Jeannika - Jul 20th 2010

I'm diagnosed with compound PTSD, fibromyalgia and OCD.  I survived an abusive childhood.  I worked hard to rebuild my life and overcome fears, etc. 

My husband is bipolar, recently diagnosed with melanoma.  Not surprizingly (after numerous recent painful biopsies) his moods have been off the chart, he's also started expressing fears about extreme global events he believes will hit in December of 2012.

Some of the stuff he says really freaks me out.  He wants to move to an other state, away from the city ... he's afraid there's going to be riots and fighting in the streets and worse.

When he's that way I try explaining how unlikely it is for anythat of that magnitude happening, and generally do what I can to create a calm home atmosphere.

Over the past week his moods have started to errode my own calm. 

I developed a spooky (unusually long) visual migraine while talking to him the other day.  I couldn't think straight, and I could barely see.  I haven't been able to maintain calm since. 

I'm having nightmares again, where I wake up screaming with my heart hammering ... too terrified to move. 

I'm terrified of having an other migraine.  I worry that I won't take good enough care of my husband.  I maintain what meds he takes, and care for his wounds while they heal.  I hate myself when I get angry at him, as he's obviously going through a lot right now.

For the last 24 hours I've been almost too scared to get up and move or walk, because my heart starts hammering.  I keep imagining I'm going to drop dead at any moment.  I'm scared to eat because I get sick to my stomach.  I feel like screaming and crying at the same time.

I have no family beyond my husband, who recently lost both his father (stroke) and only brother (melanoma).  We spent years caring for his Dad, and his brother did six months of hospice in our home (where he died).

I see a psychologist through my HMO, about every 6 weeks, as she's available.  Is there anything I can do to get myself back to something resembling normal?

I do this only when I'm on my own - Fiona - Jul 6th 2010

This is wha I do when I'm in on my own and I watch the news or something. If there's been a car crash, the first thing I think is that someone I know has been hurt. Or if someone has been murdered, I stay up all night, convincing myself that I'm going to get hurt too. I think i need to discuss this with someone, but this article was very helpful. Thank You

Catastrophizing - "Why" can be useful too... - - Nov 18th 2009

It was suggested that when I catastrophize I try to see what is behind the thought or expectation, examine the event and the feelings associated with that event, and further to why I felt or thought as I did then, until I really get to the heart of it.  Then to think about that, and acknowledge my feelings, instead of trying to just block them and think about something else or deny the likelihood of another catastrophe, or follow through what ifs.  That way I can perhaps get to process and to some extent resolve the feelings and thoughts behind the catastrophising, instead of having them hijack the here & now.  My fears are base on real experiences and real possibilities, however likely or unlikely they are to be fulfilled.

Catastrophizing is exhausting - - Oct 28th 2009

Catastrophizing is exhausting. I know...because I do. And it wasn't until recently that learned how exhausting it is for the people around me also. I am really, really working to change my thoughts and behavior to live a happier & more productive life. This article was very helpful.

for *our* sakes - Emily - Oct 24th 2009

I work with someone who is always sure that every little thing that goes wrong is a current or impending disaster.  If you try to direct him toward a positive or optimistic thought he gets defensive.  Then things turn out fine and he forgets how irrational he'd been.  It's exhausting for people around him.  I want him to get help for *our* sakes!

useful article thanks - Tim - Jun 14th 2009

this is helpful, thank you.  Only problem is that on my screen the archive articles block out the first part of the article. might be browser dependent (i'm using internet explorer) but wanted to let you know anyway!


A Professional - Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. - Jun 5th 2009

Hello there,

I appreciate your question here and it sounds like you're having some difficulty with work and sleep. It may be a good idea to search out a mental health professional in your area to assess what the issue is. 

Do I have a mental disorder? - zade - Jun 4th 2009

hi... my name is zade. I'm 18 years of not really sure if i have a mental disorder but I think I do have because every time I have an opportunity to have a good job to support my study it seems that it's so hard for me to do that job even though I know its not that difficult and  sometimes I cant sleep at night and there are times even I'm just staying at home I still feel unsafe and feel so alone and useless. I dont why I feel this because I have  a good relationship with my family and friends I cant think of any reason to feel this. Do I have a mental disorder? I hope can help me.


Follow us on Twitter!

Find us on Facebook!

This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
verify here.

Powered by CenterSite.Net