Ronnie repeated a rumour and now he thinks everyone at work hates him, his reputation is ruined and that he’ll never have credibility with his colleagues again. He thinks about this constantly, before he goes to bed and when he wakes up in the morning.

Veronica’s boss set up an “update” meeting for tomorrow morning. She thinks it’s because she undercharged a client and now her company is going to go under, she’s going to get fired, lose her house, her children will starve and they’ll have to live in their car. She tosses and turns all night.

Twenty years ago, Nav was nasty to someone and now he thinks they’re going to internet shame him and his wife will divorce him when she finds out what a jerk he was. He has internalized this and it is affecting his marriage.

Radhika graded one of her students 30% on their term project, he’s complained to the University and now she’s worried he’s going to write a horrible review, ruining her reputation and her ability to connect with students in the future. It is affecting how she teaches the class and how she grades other students.

Adam got 56% in his university accounting course and now he thinks he won’t get the marketing job, or even worse, they’ll hire him and never have confidence in his work. This affects his performance in the interview.

Layla made an error on her resume and she’s convinced her boss will find out, fire her and destroy her career. Her relationship with her boss and colleagues has suffered as a result.

Sound familiar? These extreme scenarios are all examples of catastrophic thinking.

In simple terms, catastrophic thinking is when something happens and your mind starts to spiral out of control, taking you to the absolute worst case scenario, blowing things way out of proportion, coming up with nightmare scenarios, all while driving your mental and physical health straight into the ground… and the worst part is, no matter what you do, you can’t stop.

It colours your mood, your self confidence, your actions, the way you approach situations, how you feel, your ability to sleep, function and do what you need to do with ease. It’s not good for you, your family, friends, colleagues or anyone you come into contact with.

Catastrophic thinking feels like the absolute worst is going to happen, everything around you is going to crumble and you’ll never recover – but this is rarely ever the case.

The next time you catch yourself spiraling your way into catastrophic thoughts, there are a few things you can do to snap out of it:

First, make yourself aware that you’re catastrophizing

Many of us can easily spot when we’re engaging in catastrophic thinking: the thoughts consume us, we think worst case scenario and we’re convinced – absolutely convinced – that this worst case scenario is going to happen. We begin to obsess and soon enough, our imaginary scenario has caused our lives to crumble right before our eyes. Recognize that this is happening and take a few (or several) breaths to calm down. Regain your composure and clear your head.

Second, ask yourself these two questions: What’s the worst that can happen? What does it matter and what can I do?

1. What’s the worst that can happen?

What triggered the catastrophic thought is typically a worry that the consequence of the situation, your action or whatever else happened is so dire that you can’t recover from it. The consequences of some situations are worse than of others. You made a mistake, but are you really going to lose your job? What’s the worst that can happen if you do? You stupidly repeated a rumour, but does that really mean everyone hates you? What’s the chance that anyone remembers or cares about it two weeks from now? If they do, what’s the worst that can happen? Really take stalk of what the worst thing that can happen is, and what the impact is.

2. What does it matter/what can I do?

Outside of critical illness or death, any other situation can be overcome – no matter how unpleasant, embarrassing, heartbreaking, devastating, or reputation ruining. If your nightmare, catastrophic, worst case scenario does happen, what does it really matter? If it truly does matter, then make a plan to how you’ll deal with it – one of the benefits (if you can call it that!) of catastrophic thinking , is that you’ll be prepared for any and all scenarios – good or bad.

Third, think about a better outcome

Although catastrophic thinking can lead you to think the worst can happen, there are definitely other possible outcomes, including best case scenario. Think about best case scenario outcomes, and all of those in between. Write them down. Journal about them. Focus on them. Meditate on them. As much as you believe the worst-case can happen, the best-case (or many in between) can also happen.

Last, forget about it and move on to something that makes you happy

Ruminating in worst or best case scenario has no impact on what actually ends up happening, so at this point, let it go and move on to something else – chat with a friend (about something else), read a book, watch TV, go for a walk, research something you’ve been putting off – just move onto anything other than the catastrophic thoughts.

If you find yourself returning to worst-case scenario, pull out your list of best-case scenario and focus on those.


  • Lisa Gulesserian

    Learning, people, career development and women at work

    I'm a learning & people development professional with a focus on leadership development and a passion for research around supporting women at work. I write about career, diversity and personal development with the goal of helping those around me get the most they can out of where they spend most of their time - at work!