Picture this: You have an exchange with a colleague that doesn’t go as planned. Suddenly, a wave of anxious thoughts race through your mind, and you start building up the situation, seeing it as worse than it actually was. Soon, those thoughts become a distraction, and you hold onto the regret from the brief encounter. If this scenario sounds familiar, you may struggle with what psychologists call “catastrophizing,” and the habit can lead to a pattern that is stressful, and potentially toxic.
“Certain people are simply more prone to catastrophizing,” Traci Stein, Ph.D., M.P.H., a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, tells Thrive. “Sometimes it’s because we were raised by people who compulsively focused on the negative… and sometimes it’s because we’re generally more anxious by nature.” Stein says that whatever the reason behind your habit, catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion, and it can become a more persistent pattern over time. “Catastrophizing causes you to magnify the negatives, and ignore the positives,” she explains. “It can cause significant distress, and can lead people to avoid doing things for fear of messing up.”
Although catastrophizing can take a toll on your well-being, Stein notes that there are ways to break free from the stressful cycle — and doing so comes down to a simple four-step process. Here’s how to get started.
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