Building Your Resiliency: Part VI – Quit Catastrophizing

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 1, 2010 · 17 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

This is the sixth part in a series designed to help you boost your resiliency. For the previous entries, see Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

When we began this series, I related how I became interested in the topic of resiliency while I was in law school. Every semester I had a tough time waiting for my final grades to come in and would spend the time engaged in what my wife called “logging out:” laying on the couch being depressed.

My log-like state was caused by thoughts that generally went like this:

“I’m going to fail Partnership Law. And if I fail that class my GPA will drop, and I’ll lose my scholarship. And then I’ll have to take out big loans to pay for school. And I won’t be ranked in the top ten anymore, so I won’t get a job at a big law firm. I won’t be able to get a job anywhere. Then I won’t be able to support my family, and I’ll be mired in debt.”

In short, I had myself believing that one bad grade would lead me on a non-stop train to the flophouse. I was engaging in what psychologists called “catastrophizing.”

This second to last entry in the resiliency series isn’t too deep or complex, but it can teach you a quick and dirty trick to keep your thoughts from turning into a train wreck.

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophizing essentially involves imagining and dwelling on the worst possible outcome of something. It’s basically overreacting and letting your thoughts run away to dire and highly unlikely scenarios. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re lying awake at three in the morning worried sick about the future and what’s going to happen to you.

Catastrophic thinking proceeds like a chain. One “what if” leads to another until you’re picturing yourself homeless on the street.

Catastrophizing can take two forms. It can spring from an actual event, like taking law school finals. Or it can simply be the product of gazing into the future and imagining one’s life taking a terrible turn.

Why Is Catastrophic Thinking So Seductive?

Catastrophizing leads to pretty irrational conclusions. If you’ve ever indulged in it around other people, they probably told you to stop thinking so crazy. I know Kate continually tried to show me that my logging out was really illogical. But the catastrophe chain feels real to you, and it’s hard to snap out of. Why?

While the leap all the way from point A to point B seems illogical, each little link in the chain doesn’t seem that improbable. Your mind goes from each semi-logical link to the next, so by the time you’ve reached the end, the outcome seems entirely plausible.

Here’s a scientific diagram I made to illustrate how this works:

Short-circuiting the Catastrophe Chain

The breakdown in logic that occurs when catastrophizing results from thinking that each link in the chain will definitely lead to the next. So you need to take a step back and look at what might reasonably, actually occur.

To do this, write down each step in your chain of catastrophic thoughts and challenge the plausibility of these events really happening.

Let’s say that Brian was in charge of an important sales presentation for his company. A large contract is riding on it. But Brian forgets the USB stick that held his PowerPoint presentation. Humiliated, he stumbles through an off the cuff speech that clearly leaves his potential clients underwhelmed and unconvinced. As Brian sits at his desk after the presentation, his mind is reeling down Catastrophe Lane.

“The company is not going to get the contract because of my awful presentation. So my boss will fire me. I’ll never find another job as good as this one. We won’t be able to pay the mortgage, and we’ll lose the house. If we lose the house, my wife is going to leave me.”

Brian needs to break this chain of catastrophic thoughts by writing down each link in the chain and then assigning each link a number from 1-10 that represents the likelihood of that event occurring. A 10 means it will definitely happen; a 1 means it’s nigh near impossible. At the same time, he thinks through some reasons why the event won’t happen.

  • The company is not going to get the contract because of my awful presentation. -8
    • Reasons it won’t happen: It was a really bad presentation, but I still managed to get in a few key points on why they’d want to choose us. There’s a chance the clients saw through the rough presentation and were able to understand the benefits of giving us the contract.
  • My boss is going to fire me. -6
    • Reasons it won’t happen: There was a ton riding on the company getting that contract, but it’s not the end of the world. I made a huge mistake, but in the 5 years I’ve been with the company I’ve been their number one salesman and brought in more contracts than anyone else. I’ve been employee of the year twice. It would be really hard for them to replace me.
  • I’m never going to be able to find another job as good as this one. -3
    • Reasons it won’t happen: Yeah, the recession sucks, and it’s hard to find a job but saying I’ll never get as good of a job is dumb. Things will eventually turn around. I may have to work at less desirable jobs for awhile, but I’m prepared for that. I’ve got a stellar resume, and I can out hustle any guy out there. I’ll push and push until I get a job that’s even better than the one I have now.
  • We’re not going to be able to pay the mortgage and we’ll lose the house. -3
    • Reasons it won’t happen: Even just with Jane’s salary we can still make the mortgage payments. We’ll have to rein in our budget to Spartan levels, but we used to live like that and we can do it again.
  • If we lose the house, my wife is going to leave me. -1
    • Reasons it won’t happen: The relationship between Jane and I is beyond solid. We’ve been through much harder things than losing a house. She’s already proven that she’ll stick with me through thick and thin.

Hopefully in making this list and looking at the real probability of these things happening, Brian could see how quickly the logic of the chain unraveled as it went along. Just the act of putting your thoughts on paper and generating reasons for why things won’t happen that way will significantly clear your head, calm you down, and boost your confidence.

Come Up with a List of Proactive Steps to Take

We’re prone to catastrophizing when we feel like we don’t have control over what’s going to happen to us. So another key to battling catastrophic thoughts is generating a list of things you can do to keep your worst case scenarios from coming true. You’ll feel far more calm and confident when you have a plan in place, any kind of plan at all.

So Brian would make a list like this:

  • Call up client, apologize for botched presentation, and ask if their team wouldn’t mind me taking them to lunch to talk about a few things that didn’t get covered in the presentation.
  • Don’t wait for the boss to come talk to me. Apologize sincerely to him, remind him of past accomplishments, and pledge to work 110% to make up for this mistake. Tell him I will hit the ground running to bring in new business.
  • Update resume and get it in tip top shape so it’s ready to go in case I am fired.

After you make the list, go to work taking those next steps. Taking action will make you feel in control and far better than a log.

Building Your Resiliency: Part I – An Introduction
Building Your Resiliency: Part II – Avoiding Learned Helplessness and Changing Your Explanatory Style
Building Your Resiliency: Part III – Taking Control of Your Life
Building Your Resiliency: Part IV – Iceberg Ahead!
Building Your Resiliency: Part V – Recognizing and Utilizing Your Signature Strengths
Building Your Resiliency: Part VI – Quit Catastrophizing
Building Your Resiliency: Part VII – Building Your Children’s Resiliency

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amlohdi April 1, 2010 at 9:23 am

Reading this instantly reminded me of High Reliability Organizations. Go ahead and google away. Throw in “worst case scenario” along with “resilience”. You’ll most likely get majorly distracted once you land at the wildland fire lessons learned site.

2 Nathan April 1, 2010 at 9:44 am

Awesome post! Your scientific diagram cracked me up – it’s so true. I never realized why I jump to the worst-case scenerio, but your explanation of the semi-logical links makes perfect sense. Thanks man, keep up the great work.

3 Davy Haynes April 1, 2010 at 10:25 am

I “have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

–Mark Twain

4 Magnus April 1, 2010 at 10:27 am

There is a reason people engage in catastrophizing. The emotions people experience when they are in the midst of a full-blown panic are genuine and real. They originate from somewhere. It’s often not enough to simply tell yourself to stop doing it. It might help temporarily, and in the moment, to remind yourself that the emotional response you’re experiencing is not rational or logical, but merely reminding yourself of the rational view of events is not enough to make the emotional spiral go away.

In most cases, that kind of emotional spiral is a pattern that is learned in childhood. Parents frequently transfer their own panics, stresses and catastrophic worries onto their children, who obviously have no means of dealing with the situation. The child in that kind of household grows up with a feeling that disaster is around the corner, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.

Actually, for the child, that’s is a pretty accurate assessment of his situation — (a) his parents have conveyed the impression that disaster is coming, (b) it’s vague and indistinct but very bad, and (c) the child is powerless to stop it.

These emotions don’t go away just because you grow up. When a person is an adult, in an emotional spiral based on an irrational interpretation of his present-day reality, he’s essentially re-living some past emotional experience. He is disconnected from the situation as it actually exists, and is instead responding to something that may have happened 20 years earlier.

It’s somewhat similar to the way a soldier who experiences some awful, traumatic event can develop PTSD, and will continue to respond to that event long after it no longer exists. Decades later, when he is no longer in a combat situation, something stressful may happen that triggers those old emotions, and as far as his emotions are concerned, he’s re-experiencing the combat or other traumatic situation. He can’t shut it off. He can’t wish it away.

The only way to stop re-living the old emotions of helplessness and panic is to face them head-on. It might help to look at your family life as a child or young person, and try to identify who may have habitually panicked and worried and engaged in doom-and-gloom scenarios — a parent or teacher or some other authority figure. It may help to remember what it felt like listening to that person panic and worry.

Thinking about these negative experiences can be a gut-wrenching and painful thing to do, which is why people wall those emotions off in the first place. It helps to talk about it with someone you trust. But it’s the only way to stop the catastrophizing at the root, rather than just manage the effects of it.

5 hustling April 1, 2010 at 10:39 am

Wow, I really needed this today. I failed an exam yesterday and I was sitting around rewriting my life. I thought it was the end, but I know when I look back it won’t be the end but the beginning of something more better than I could ever imagine. Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Version) 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Time to put the hustling into overdrive!

Thank you. Your scientific diagram is now my desktop background!

6 bill April 1, 2010 at 10:44 am

The basic thing to keep in mind is that your success in life is always the result of the decisions you make. All your choices have rewards or consequences. Make dumb decisions and you will fail. There are no exceptions. Excuses are only justifications to help you think an outcome is someone else’s fault. Be responsible, make good choices and you and those around you will prosper.

7 Jim Sowers April 1, 2010 at 10:51 am

The beginning of the Dale Carnegie book ‘How to Stop Worrying And Start Living’ has the best techniques for stopping this kind of thinking that I have ever read.
Like other Carnegie books, the title sounds a little dated but this one is a solid read.
I liked it so much that I sent copies to several friends.

8 Ryan K April 1, 2010 at 11:12 am

This reminds me exactly what I read from “Feeling Good” by David D. Burns M.D.

I have actually gone through catastrophic thinking twice in my life, so far.

The first time was when I was 19 and deciding if I should stay in my major, Mechanical Engineering or switch to something I would enjoy…I eventually went with the latter and I was happier.

The second time happened recently. I was dropped from my training class for learning basic infantry officer skills. I could have lost my commission, my job, I would have loans to repay…it was bad day. I am now finishing up the training and I am about to graduate, I got the job specialty I wanted and I am happy and doing good things.

9 Rick Smith April 1, 2010 at 2:28 pm

In addition to catastrophizing in common day-to-day life, we can see the effects of catastrophizing in our political world. During Bush’s terms in office (the younger) extremists said we were on a slippery slope to hell, we would fall behind all other nations, and would generally be spoken of as the worst administration ever; now radicals tell us that our Commander in Chief isn’t a US citizen, is a Nazi-Socialist (etc), and that his policies will destroy the American way of life. Clearly the extremist claims on either side, regardless of your political stance, is illogical catastrophic rhetoric.

Real men see through this kind of propaganda and make intelligent decisions whether they agree or not.

10 Core April 3, 2010 at 9:46 pm

I read this… article. And Of the ‘Resiliency’ chapters I have read so far.. this seemed to be the least effected on me. I guess because I felt like a lot of the solutions mentioned above for the possible outcomes were just being optimistic.

And the negative outcomes didn’t sound so un-plausible. I guess for people like me who have been in situations that have gone from bad to worst real quick… maybe I am just jaded in my perspective. Its called the snowball effect… or domino effect.

11 Kyle April 6, 2010 at 11:13 am

I like this post. I really needed it today. I have been catostrophizing really badly since yesterday.

12 Nathan April 6, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Great reference to Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”! I’ve applied that very technique (ask yourself what is the worst that can happen, accept it, then improve upon it), and it’s worked several times.

13 Louie April 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm

The “scientific diagram” absolutely killed me. It wasn’t on my screen when I read the introduction, scrolling down resulted in one hell of an outburst. Must of been fun making that…did you do that in paint? ..Kudos!

14 Brett McCaw April 9, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Great article — I would say that ‘not catastrophizing’ is a focal point to building resliency as a man in the contemporary American context. Paired with an overall effeminization of men, fear more and more seems to be THE motivator and dominant sentiment in life. To hell with living that way! Being a man committed to one’s faith tradition also is key here as well.

Happy Easter/Passover to all.

15 Trent April 26, 2010 at 8:18 pm


I think the point has been missed. Catastrophic thinking is created over a wide array of factors, but pessimism is a vital component in making it happen. When you catastrophize, you’re assuming the worst of situations. Pessimism, in several ways, fits exactly to a T by that definition. So, by being “just” optimistic, you are avoiding pessimism and therefore have a better chance at avoiding catastrophic thinking.

16 bradey February 5, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I do this all the time. I do this in school, work, and all my relationships. If I don’t. Do everything right this will lead to that and I am going to die a failure in the gutter in nova scotia. I would really like to thank you for the advice! I think it will help me at least realize when I am in self defeat mode, so I can then change the direction of my thoughts. Thanks again!

17 Rohit Ramachandran June 6, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Great read, Brett. Your blog’s a lifesaver.

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