Today I’m writing about a very common cognitive distortion that we all use from time to time – Catastrophic Thinking. It is a form of erroneous thinking that can cause great stress and anxiety to people. When you engage in catastrophic thinking, you’re basically focusing on the worst-case scenario and over-inflating the likelihood of it coming true. But guess what, the worst-case scenario almost never comes true. And even in cases where it does come true, or almost comes true, the consequences are often not nearly as bad as one fears.

What are examples of catastrophic thinking? Let’s look at thoughts around safety. Suppose your spouse wanted to take you on a dinner cruise. We’ve got great dinner cruises that leave Waikiki around sunset where people can dine, dance, drink a mai tai, and watch the sunset. But you don’t want to go because, well, the boat might sink! Of all the things that could go wrong on a dinner cruise, the boat sinking would be pretty high on the list of catastrophic things that might happen.

Or how about doing poorly on a test? If I don’t do well on this test, I’ll fail my class. If I fail my class, I’ll fail out of school. If I fail out of school, I’ll fail out of life. And then I’ll be left with nothing – no future, no job possibilities, no life. Bupkis. Yeah, a lot is riding on that test alright!

Or how about a first date. I’m going on a coffee date with a woman I met at a social gathering. I’m pretty nervous, and I’m worried I might stutter on the date, have a hard time conversing, and making a complete fool out of myself. If she sees this, she’ll be completely turned off and probably tell all her friends what a freak I am. Then nobody is ever going to go out with me and I’ll be all alone in this world. Sound dramatic? Well, it’s catastrophic.

Let’s try one more. I’m new at my job, and I have an unfamiliar task that’s really hard for me to complete. I don’t really want to ask for help because if I do, the boss is going to think I’m incompetent, and I’ll be on the way of termination. Word gets around fast, and nobody in the field would hire me after the miserable reputation I receive.

I know, these examples sound dramatic. I like to be dramatic to illustrate a point! The fact is, these examples are not so far off from what I hear regularly in my clinical practice. People often tend to exaggerate and overinflate the likelihood of the worst-case scenario happening.

When I work with patients on catastrophic thinking, I have them take a logical and even scientific approach to examining the statistical probability of the worst case scenario happening.

What is the probability of a dinner cruise sinking? Let’s look for statistics, perhaps on the internet, or for news stories, about dinner cruises sinking while guests are slurping their margheritas and doing the mamba. I’m guessing you wont find too many sunken dinner cruises. But let’s say your dinner cruise did, in fact, spring a leak? What is the chance that a boat like that will just keel over and plunge to the depths of the ocean? I’m guessing there are life rafts and the coast guard nearby enough to pick up passenger before their visiting Davy Jones’ locker.

What happens if I fail a test? Well, first off, I’m only going to fail the class if I’ve failed most of the other tests, or homework assignments, because the grade my class is going to be an average of all the grades, so one test dost not maketh the grade. Sure, If I had a B in the class maybe I’ll get dragged down to a C. But is that failing? No! But even if I did fail the class. Would I fail school completely? Would I fail in life? There’s a long sequence of events that need to take place for total, catastrophic failure that are likely not dependent on one test. And even then, is there really such thing as a catastrophic fail? Not really. The failure to achieve one thing only opens the door to try again, or to try something different.

What if I’m nervous on my date? And what if my date knows I’m nervous because I’m stuttering or having trouble making conversation? Would this be a catastrophic date? Perhaps it won’t end up in a second date. But perhaps she finds my nervousness endearing. Or she’s nervous too and relieved to see that both of us are struggling. Or she’s sympathetic and compassionate and realizes first dates can be anxiety provoking. But what if she really doesn’t’ want to see me again? It could be for so many other reasons, and not related to my nervousness. But whatever the reason, is she likely to spread wild gossip about how awful I was on the date? Well I didn’t’ do anything to hurt her, so it’s hard to imagine she would be inclined to smear my name all over the wall in the ladies room just because I was nervous on a date. But let’s say she was a really mean, horrible person and the time and energy to let the world know how bad I was? Well, her world might consist of a few friends. And guess what, there are billions of people in the world so it’s hard to imagine that gossip about this one unfortunately date, with one mean woman, is going to travel through cyberspace to the devices of every other potential partner around the world that I could imagine. Not likely.

In the final example, what is the likelihood that asking for help from my supervisor is going to lead to my ultimate career downfall? First off, you know the saying “there are no stupid questions?” Presumably, most supervisors would welcome questions because it means their employees are contentious about doing things right and value the their input. But let’s say your boss is annoyed. Does it mean he thinks you’re incompetent and should be fired? There are many reasons he might be annoyed, and not because he thinks you are incompetent and need to be fired. The chances of actually being fired for not knowing how to do something is very unlikely. But even if you were fired, is this such massive catastrophe? Chances are, if you got fired for asking a question on how to do something, it’s a pretty miserable place to work for in the first place. And since you were able to land this job, chances are pretty good you’ll find another one if you need to.

So, it all comes down to probabilities and logic. What are the chances the worst case scenario will come true? Base your conclusion about this on evidence and logic. If the chances are extremely low, than it’s better to assume the worst case scenario WON’T come true. And you know what, the best case scenario usually doesn’t come try either! The results usually fall somewhere in the middle, and most people can live with that.

I know some people like to say, it’s best to expect the worst case scenario so I’m prepared for it if it comes. But then you’re living your life in fear, and likely not taking reasonable, calculated risks that allow you to grow as a person and find meaning and fulfillment in life. You’re so busy protecting yourself from the worst thing happening that you’re inhibiting yourself from living life. And by the way, it IS likely that during an entire lifetime, there may be one or two catastrophic events that take place. That’s life. But do you really want to be living in fear and over preparation for those one or two events that take place over a lifetime, or would you rather be enjoying the billions of moments in between that fall in the “grey zone.” Think about it.