Journaling Exercises to Counter Catastrophizing

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By: Erin McGinn

Sometimes we make our own prophecies for failure or for suffering. When we expect this from the world, we can end up fulfilling these predictions because we don’t try, we give up easily, or we are so nervous about certain events unfolding that our performance suffers. An error in logic called catastrophizing causes this kind of thing. There is hope for, when you reevaluate the risks associated with your worries, you can counter catastrophizing.

What is Catastrophizing?

In the language of psychologists, catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that has two facets. “One of these is a belief in the excessive likelihood of catastrophic events, and the other is attributing excessive gravity to a situation” (Pike et al. 2016). There are exercises that will help you decatastrophize, which “is a form of cognitive reappraisal that can help us think differently about emotional situations, provide emotional regulation, and reduce catastrophic thinking and anxiety” (Sutton, 2020).

These exercises have a foundation in cognitive-behavioral therapy which is a type of therapy which is designed to identify, test, and correct both the cognitions and the underlying beliefs of a person, leading to a reduction of their symptoms of mental illness (Pike et al. 2016). You can do them yourself or with a journaling mental health group like The Love Story. If you notice you continue to catastrophize or have other upsetting thoughts, please see a professional psychologist. 

Exercise 1: Realizing The Worst is Manageable

  1. Describe your worries. 
  2. Then decide how likely this scenario is to occur. Reference previous experience and how often it happens to yourself or others.
  3. What is the worst thing that could happen? 
  4. How would a friend or family member counsel you on this potential situation?
  5. What is most likely to happen?
  6. Now rate how likely you’ll be okay over a longer time-span; for example, a day or a year later.

This first exercise focuses on reducing how much gravity you place on a situation. It is based on Cognitive Restructuring: Decatastrophizing a worksheet from Therapist Aid (2012) and 16 Decatastrophizing Tools, Worksheets, and Role-Plays from Positive Psychology (2020).

Exercise 2: Finding the Antithesis of Catastrophizing

  1. Write a paragraph on the worst potential future, the one that kept you up at night and paralyzed your hands.
  2. Next, rank each possibility by how likely they are to occur and if you have a hand in the outcome. 
  3. Write about your best possible future. The one where you sparkle and the one you might be afraid to admit you yearn for. If you are having trouble thinking of something, you can write a couple of satisfying options.
  4. Rate each possibility by how likely it is to happen, and whether you can make it happen.
  5. You should notice that you can control more things about your best future than your worst future. In that case, you can start making SMART goals to work actively toward your best future.
  6. If you cannot control most of your best future, try adjusting it so it becomes something to work towards. For example, if your goal is to marry a foreign prince and live a wealthy life, a good alteration might be to associate yourself with lawyers or doctors, so you can ask them on date or maybe even gain some skills or education to become wealthier. 

This exercise has the added benefit of giving people something to look forward to in the future instead of simply seeing the potential negatives. 

Catastrophizing can limit your life by putting too much emphasis on negative outcomes. Taking the time to reflect on how likely your worries are to occur and how the consequences might not be as bad as they seem can help put them to rest. If you would like to continue to confront distorted thoughts through journaling, join one of The Love Story’s online journaling sessions, which occurs every day.

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Cognitive restructuring: Decatastrophizing (worksheet). (2012). Therapist Aid. 

Pike, A. C., Serfaty, J. R., & Robinson, O. J. (2021, January 13). The development and psychometric properties of a self-report catastrophizing questionnaire. Royal Society Open Science, 8(1), 201362. 

Sutton, J. (2020, September 24). 16 decatastrophizing tools, worksheets, and role-plays. 

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