The Sky is Falling!

Robert F. Mullen, PhD
Director/ReChanneling

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Cognitive Distortion #10: Catastrophizing  

One morning, as Chicken Little was plucking worms in the henyard, an acorn dropped from a tree onto her head. She had no idea what hit her and assumed the worst. “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Catastrophizing drives us to conclude the worst-case scenario when things happen, rather than considering more obvious and plausible explanations. It is the irrational assumption that something is far worse than it is. We validate this by Filtering out the alternatives. We anticipate and prophesize disaster and twist reality to support our projection. If our significant other complains of a headache, we assume our relationship is doomed. If this happens again, our belief is confirmed.

A symptom of SAD is our tendency to expect negative consequences to things that happen during a situation. Because of our life-consistent negative self-appraisal, and inherent negative bias, we tend to assume the worst. Often, we justify our projections based on prior events, believing that catastrophe will ensue because the former event had disastrous consequences. This is similar to Overgeneralization where one bad apple means the entire bushel is rotten. Our four horsemen of social anxiety disorder – helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and unworthiness aggravate our negative assumptions. Catastrophizing is often a consequence of our symptomatic fears of criticism, ridicule, and rejection. We take something we believe is inevitable and presuppose its actuality. We will be rejected and therefore, never find love. We will be criticized and, therefore, never be taken seriously. 

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Catastrophizing can be paralyzing. It limits our social engagement because we avoid situations that posit the possibility of disaster. Our fatalistic obsessions prevent us from experiencing and enjoying life. We express it in our SAD-induced automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). “What if no one talks to me?” “What if they criticize my presentation?” “What if they find me unattractive?” Worrying about something that hasn’t happened is an exercise in futility and supports our sense of hopelessness. It can negatively impact our entire outlook in life, causing issues of motivation and self-esteem that lead to self-disappointment and underachievement.

Considering the consequences of what can happen is a regular and rational part of determining our actions and activities. The compulsion to project the worst possible outcome, no matter how improbable, is self-destructive. 

When those of us with social anxiety disorder find ourselves in a situation where we dread being criticized, ridiculed, and or rejected, the smallest incident, like a failed attempt at humor, can trigger the belief that the entire evening is a personal disaster. This projection can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are convinced of its inevitability. 

Catastrophizing is closely linked to anxiety, depression, and self-pity, and is prevalent among individuals who have generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Again, the obvious remedy is to become mindful of our susceptibility to this distortion, rationally assess the situation, and consider plausible explanations for the incident that triggered our catastrophizing.

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