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Catastrophizing

An Axis Course On Don't Believe Everything You Think

The next cognitive distortion we want to look at is called “catastrophizing,” which basically means imagining something to be a catastrophe. This involves focusing on the worst possible outcome, and seeing it as most likely. One example might be if someone were to think: “My girlfriend hasn’t responded to my text for an hour. It’s probably because she’s going to break up with me, and when she does I’m going to be devastated.”

One issue here is that no-one really knows what’s going to happen in the future. James 4:13-14 speaks to this when it says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Although his words here were meant as a rebuke to human pride, they can just as easily be taken as a rebuke to fear and anxiety. “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow”—or even, what will happen in the next 30 minutes. But sometimes we build a picture in our minds of what’s going to happen, and then spend our time worrying about that picture.

Some people believe that imagining the worst-case scenario helps them to be more ready for it in case it does come. And if “catastrophizing” actually helped us prepare, that might be a good thing. But most of the time, this cognitive distortion only involves worrying—not planning. People in the grips of it usually aren’t imagining the worst-case scenario and making a plan for how they’re going to deal with it—they’re mostly just expending mental energy feeling bad about things that may or may not happen.

The truth is, maybe the hypothetical person in the above example is about to get broken up with. But maybe, if that happens, he will find in himself the strength to get through it and move on. Or on the flipside, maybe he’s misreading his girlfriend altogether; maybe she’s distracted, busy, or away from her phone. Maybe this hypothetical boyfriend needs to learn to ask more intentional questions, or pay attention to context clues, instead of deciding how he will react if his worst fears come true.

Just because we are afraid that something bad is going to happen doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to happen.

However, if we spend our mental energy focusing on a particular outcome (negative or positive), there is a greater chance of making decisions that might tilt us in the direction of that outcome (which explains why sometimes #manifesting looks like it works). When this happens, it’s not because we predicted the future, or because our thoughts actually manifested something into existence—it’s because we made decisions that took us into a particular version of the future.

Our job is just to do the next right thing, over and over—focusing on what is in our control, as opposed to what is not in our control—and then, as Jesus put it in Matthew 6:34, to “let tomorrow worry about itself.”