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Catastrophizing and THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF TANNER AND LOUISE by Colleen Oakley

Tanner was a star soccer player with a full scholarship at her dream school, until a sudden injury left her unable to play her senior year and, therefore, ineligible for her scholarship. Lacking the money to complete school, Tanner dropped out and moved into her parent’s basement, where she played video games, threw temper tantrums, and stopped showering. Tanner’s parents got fed up and wanted Tanner out, so she got a job as a caretaker for a rambunctious octogenarian. It didn’t help much; Tanner thought her life had gone up in flames.

Tanner truly faced many complex transitions. But, unfortunately, her thought patterns made things worse. Tanner catastrophized, a cognitive distortion characterized by continually jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

Catastrophizing makes upsetting situations feel like disasters and causes people to emotionally over-respond in ways that lead to anxiety and depression.

Like with all cognitive distortions, the goal is to move from:

Situation -> Automatic Thoughts -> Emotion -> Response


Situation -> Automatic Thought -> Emotion -> Analysis of Automatic Thought -> New Emotion -> Adaptive Response

Tips for Challenging Catastrophizing:

  • Right Size Your Response: Ask yourself a few questions:

    • “How long will this problem impact me? An hour? A day? A month? A year?”

    • “How much emotional or mental energy will this problem take?”

    • “During the time this problem is impacting me, how important is the impact?”

    • Once you’ve answered these questions, assess whether a small, medium, or large response is proportionate. And check in if your response is constructive or destructive.

  • Assess the Likelihood of the Worst-Case Scenario: Catastrophizers spend much time preparing for everything to end in the worst possible way. Ask yourself what the likelihood is that the worst-case scenario indeed plays out. If the probability is low, remind yourself to focus more on preparing for things that are more likely to occur.

  • Stay Grounded in Details: When you notice generalizations or exaggerations, stop and reframe your thoughts with details. For example, if you think, “If I don’t sleep perfectly before this test, I’ll fail,” you could reframe it to, “I will feel better rested for my test if I sleep 7 hours or more the night before. If I sleep less, I might be tired, and my performance might suffer, but I won’t forget everything I learned.

Let’s apply the discounting the catastrophizing theories to Tanner…

  • Tanner sits down to dinner with her family, and they suggest that she enroll in the community college (SITUATION).

  • Tanner immediately thinks that her family doesn’t understand that her life is over and that they are minimizing her emotional pain (AUTOMATIC THOUGHT).

  • Tanner feels angry and alone (EMOTION).

  • Tanner throws a temper tantrum, isolating her from her support system (RESPONSE).

And add in the new skills:

  • Tanner realizes that dropping out of her college will impact her for a long time, but it doesn’t have to mean that she doesn’t get a degree; it may just take a little longer and be at a different institution. She decides that a medium/large response seems proportionate but is mindful that she wants her response to be productive, not destructive (RIGHT SIZE SITUATION). Tanner reminds herself that her true goal is graduating from college and that she can do that at community college or elsewhere. She reasons her worst-case scenario of not finishing college is low (ASSESS LIKELIHOOD OF WORST CASE SCENARIO). Tanner reminds herself that she has excellent grades and friends and family who will support her (if she stops pushing them away) and will resume classes soon (STAY GROUNDED IN DETAIL). (ANALYSIS OF AUTOMATIC THOUGHT).

  • Tanner feels hopeful (NEW EMOTION).

  • Tanner talks with her family and friends about her sadness at the change from her old life to her new life, and they support her as she takes the steps needed to enroll at the local community college. Maybe she even does so well there that, through some luck, she ends up back at Northwestern (ADAPTIVE RESPONSE).


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