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Stuck in the spiral of 'what if'? Understanding the basics of Catastrophising

Are you someone who worries about things that haven’t happened yet? Things that might not happen?

But, what if it does happen?

And, if it does, what if it leads to something even worse?

Not just something worse, but THE worst possible outcome.

No, it’s not happened before. But, what if this time, it does?

If so, you might be experiencing catastrophic thinking, or "catastrophising" as it is more commonly known. A thought process that feels like being trapped in a downward spiral of endless "what ifs". For some people the what ifs might not even be a question it might feel more certain.

If you are someone who can relate, you’re certainly not alone. The phrase “I’m spiralling” doesn’t come from nowhere. Many of us have and do from time-to-time experience this way of thinking. So today, we’re here to learn the basics of catastrophising. The what, why, and who of the ‘what if’ spiral. So, let’s start with what.

What does it mean to catastrophise?

In case you haven’t already guessed by the name, we are referring to a thought process whereby the mind jumps to the worst-case scenario. Making something of concern, yep, you guessed it — into a catastrophe. The actual probability of the catastrophe occurring? Well, that’s largely insignificant.

If we take the analogy of the spiral, in mathematical terms, we might describe a spiral as a curve that gets further and further away from the point. And that’s really the best way to explain the catastrophising thought process.

The concept was given its name back in 1957 by a Psychologist, Dr Albert Ellis, when he was working to develop a form of therapy. It was then when it was labelled as a type of cognitive distortion, and it is reported that Dr Ellis described catastrophising as an "irrationally negative forecast of future events".

Catastrophising can be about current concerns, which we may then refer to it as "magnifying", or future events.

What is clear is that being stuck in the "what if"-catastrophising-headspace can be extremely frustrating. When not in that place, we can often rationally see that these worries are just that: worries. The "what ifs" are just "what ifs". Questions that might not even come to fruition. Why then, if we can have this hindsight, is the spiral so all-consuming.

Why do we catastrophise in the first place?

From my research so far, it appears that there is no single answer to this question. It is not clear what causes catastrophic thinking. It could be many different reasons and for different people. What strikes me as interesting though, is that it may be rooted in our evolution.

Catastrophic thinking may be linked with survival mechanisms that have ingrained a "negativity bias", in us. As human beings, we are naturally more inclined to acknowledge the negative. While previously adapted to give us more awareness of threats and predators, our brains are essentially hardwired to be on high alert for such dangers. One area of the brain in particular, the amygdala, has a key role in detecting threats and quickly priming us to elicit stress responses by informing other important areas of the brain (the hypothalamus) which subsequently informs our nervous systems, preparing us to deal with the danger. You might know of this as the "fight or flight" response.

For the most part, in 21st Century life, the amygdala needs to worry less about the imminent attack of a wild animal, for example, but that doesn’t mean that this value of learning from negative information or situations is no longer needed. It can be helpful when we haven’t got learned information about potentially stressful stimuli (we haven’t faced a particular situation so don’t know how to respond), but this hardwiring of our brains is certainly not as useful as it used to be.

So, perhaps this is why we jump to the negative?

In a similar spirit, it has been suggested that catastrophic thinking might be a type of coping mechanism. By picturing the worst-case scenario, we feel more prepared to deal with it. And most of the time, the worst-case scenario doesn’t become the reality, and thus, anything less than that is easier to deal with, ultimately avoiding disappointment.

Who experiences catastrophic thinking?

What I really want to highlight is that catastrophising is not a mental health illness itself. However, your mental health might increase the likelihood of it happening.

Years of research have shown that catastrophic beliefs are associated with a number of psychological disorders such as health anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to name a few. Some of the strongest evidence has demonstrated that there are also associations between the thought process and anxiety disorders and depression. In a piece of work bringing together the results of lots of different research studies (something we call a meta-analysis), researchers demonstrated links between anxiety, depression, and catastrophising (specifically catastrophising relating to pain) even as early as in childhood.

Interestingly, there are also some personality traits which might make us more inclined to lead toward the "what ifs". If you’ve read some of my other Inspire the Mind articles, you might recall I have explored the ins and outs of perfectionism — so guess whose ears pricked up when they read that perfectionism can make us more likely to catastrophise. A big part of perfectionism comes down to worrying about making mistakes, which as you can imagine provides the ideal environment for catastrophic thoughts to explore all the possible consequences of a mistake. There are also some similar research findings that suggest that we might also be more likely to catastrophise if we have low self-esteem. There are also times or situations which might make it more likely for our thinking to head toward the spiral, such as negative mood states or periods of increased stress in particular.


Despite these various associations and speculations, it is important to note that most of us experience catastrophic thinking in one way or another, it may just be to varied extents. There is something comforting in knowing that what can feel like an isolated experience is something that is relatively normal and, for many of us, extremely relatable.

Catastrophising might ultimately stem from somewhere beneficial, but that doesn’t mean it cannot lead to a lot of stress and discomfort and so it is important to look after yourself and understand why your thoughts are heading in this direction. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to occasionally question, what if it all works out ok?


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