top of page

The Irrational Cognitive Distortion of Catastrophizing

We are facing many challenges in the U.S. and the world. Will one of them become a major catastrophe? Pick one - COVID pandemic, global warming, violence in the streets, economic collapse, racial strife, potential disputed election?

Maybe you feel one or more of them already is a catastrophe.

What about your personal life? Are you facing personal or family issues that you fear will become horrific? Physical or mental health, loss of work, financial stability, etc.

Pose a question

It is vital for us in these times to take a step back and ask ourselves - are our fears realistic? If not, we may be suffering from the cognitive distortion psychologists call catastrophizing. It is an invisible mind block that exaggerates the impact of a negative event and creates the illusion of impending doom.

You may be thinking, “But some catastrophes do happen. My thinking is realistic.” You are correct that sometimes worst case scenarios do come true. However, that happens not nearly as often as we predict.

What is the result of this catastrophizing? We experience everything from panic attacks to disrupted sleep cycles to inability to focus. It can even lead to severe depression, in which case you should seek help from a qualified professional.


Our natural instinct to value safety and security is the culprit. This impulse is so pervasive that it will lie to us in order to make us prioritize safety. These lies are illusions – they feel real and create fear and anxiety, distorting our ability to properly perceive probabilities of future events.

I am a perfect example of this. Currently, I am very concerned that the U.S. presidential election will be handled so poorly and have so much uncertainty about the validity of the results, that the losing party, whichever one that is, will not concede and the government will be thrown into disarray and potentially a civil war.

Extremely unlikely but feels very real.

Fuel on the fire

This feeling is elevated by the information I consume about current events and how I process that information.

Regardless of what your specific fears are, they are exaggerated by some or all of the following contributing factors:

- confirmation bias – we look for information that supports our feeling of dread

- media business model – the media makes money by ramping up fear and division

- misinformation – much of the information presented to us is false or given out of context

- The COVID-19 pandemic – this has put all of us in a heightened state of stress and anxiety

Coming to grips

While it generally is not helpful to confront someone else’s fears about a pending catastrophe by telling them to “calm down!” we can confront our own reaction with the following strategies:

- Examine possible outcomes and likely probability of each. Look at past events, both inside and outside of your own experience. Be sure to include the most positive potential outcomes.

- Look inward. Identify your beliefs, personality traits, and current condition that may be contributing factors. Are you generally vulnerable to emotional distress? Are you prone to jumping to conclusions? Are you currently stressed or fatigued?

- Practice mindfulness techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing, muscle relaxation, and meditation are great ways to get into a more peaceful and positive mindset. Once there, you have a better chance of evaluating the potential outcomes rationally.

Think well and be well!

- Steve

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


bottom of page