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HomeHEALTHCatastrophist’s cataclysm: Worst psychological trait that can debilitate future thinking

Catastrophist’s cataclysm: Worst psychological trait that can debilitate future thinking

Express News Service

Being a worrywart never did anybody any favours. On the contrary, dwelling on challenges has resulted in disproportionate anxiety. While some amount of it is good from the evolutionary lizard brain point of
view, being fixated on the worst-case scenarios can turn one into a serial catastrophiser. And
that’s problematic.


How is it different from general worry Simply put, if you are the sort of person who is constantly gearing up to meet the apocalypse, chances are you are suffering from paranoia. This state can quickly change to catastrophising, if left unmanaged. A cognitive distortion causes the brain to anticipate, feel and act as though it’s already in danger “Catastrophising is exhausting and can even be life-altering. It paralyses the rational brain to take sensible action,” says Delhi-based psychotherapist Mukta Rai Ahuja.

Worry, on the other hand, is temporary. The emotion nudges you to implement the best solutions using your problem-solving skills. You can define the problem clearly, knowing exactly how small or big it is.

“The prefrontal cortex near the front of the brain is responsible for finding solutions to difficult situations and everyday challenges. It kicks in at once, offering best solutions after considering all options available to you from your environment. Worry, in that sense, serves a positive purpose, whereas catastrophising is persistent and stretched, and inhibits sound judgement,” says Ahuja.

Noida-based law student Pooja Jain (name changed) shares how debilitating catastrophising can be.

“I was a pessimistic mess three years ago. I repeatedly told my parents that I wouldn’t pass the common law admission test (CLAT). I had failed two mock exams at my coaching centre and was convinced that I would never pass the actual exam or any exam for that matter, never find a job, never be suitably employed and never be financially independent like her siblings,” Jain recalls.

She built a narrative of failure and relegated her life to rejection and disappointment when, in reality, she was a good student, who had performed reasonably well in school. The source of Pooja’s problem turned out to be her actual exposure to a childhood catastrophe. Her father lost his job when she was a kid, and she watched his frustrations affect the environment at home after he became abusive. Once the problem was identified through therapy, she was able to reduce catastrophic thinking with counselling and medication.

Break the loop

Decatastrophising is crucial to preventing your life from spinning out of control.

“Move, flex your muscles and rotate your neck and arms when you see the first signs of panic approaching—light-headedness, palpitations or feeling flushed. This will help you to get out of the  ‘moment’ physiologically, breaking the rigidity your body is experiencing when under stress. You can try any of these focused activities: Play sudoku, solve a quick puzzle, chop some vegetables, take a shower, knit, paint, go for a run… the idea is to get physical,” says Gurugram-based cognitive behavioural therapist Gauri Chawla.

She added, “When we experience stress, extreme tension builds up in the body without us even realising it. The stiffness makes us even more uncomfortable. It’s the increase of serotonin, a hormone that stabilises mood that makes stretching so effective.”

Another way to find a grip over catastrophising is to modify your belief system while in a stable state of mind. Become attentive towards your latent cognitive biases since these are responsible for adaptive responses that keep you trapped in fear.

“Some of these are rigidity—the belief that we are always right; personalisation—believing that whatever is said is meant for us; self-blame—that we are the cause of other people’s misery; generalising—making a broad statement without understanding the subtext; predicting—trying to judge the outcome and often concluding that it will be a negative one; all-or-nothing thinking—looking at situations as good or bad, right or wrong,” says Chawla.

All these add up to faulty thinking patterns that get triggered in the face of adversity, no matter how small they are. Maintaining a memory logbook is an effective tool to reduce catastrophic thinking. Write down difficult situations from the past that you handled well. More often than not, the outcome is far less threatening than what was anticipated. Use all this positive evidence to guide you through later periods of stress. Remember, it’s not as bad as it looks. Well, mostly.


Catastrophic thinking could be a sign of fear, insecurity or low self-esteem. Those who’ve had a traumatic childhood or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression or have
anger-management issues are prone to catastrophic thinking. Even though it is not officially categorised as a mental health disorder, many of its symptoms are similar to those of an anxious person. Essentially one believes they’re incapable of handling problems and feel helpless in the face of challenges.

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