Worst-Case Thinking

Jul 1, 2021

When we are faced with a stressor, it’s really common for our brains to assume that the worst-case scenario is going to happen. This assumption is a type of cognitive distortion called catastrophizing (see our blog from March 2020 to learn more about cognitive distortions).

Why do we think in worst-case terms?

I’ve talked to numerous people about what fuels their worst-case thinking, and over and over, I get the same answer. They explain that by thinking of the worst thing possible, they will be better prepared when it happens. I can agree with the idea that when we prepare for stressful events, we can navigate them more smoothly, but here is where the logic falls off. The chance that the worst-case scenario plays out is extremely low, so people are torturing themselves with horror stories to prepare for something that’s not going to happen.

What does catastrophizing do to us?

Thinking in worst case terms is going to get us worked up to say the least. We inadvertently trigger our fight or flight response and induce a state of anxiety where physiological and psychological distress are intense. Our bodies and minds respond to catastrophizing as if the horror story is actually happening, but in reality, it’s not.

What can I do about catastrophizing?

If you notice you are prone to thinking in worst-case terms, it’s time to get objective and challenge the idea that the catastrophic event will happen. Ask yourself “If I think about this realistically, how likely is the worst-case scenario?” Put a number on it: a 10% chance? 20%? .000005%? What are your actual chances that this plays out? When you analyze the likelihood of the worst-case event occurring, you’ll see that it’s highly improbable.

If you’re still not convinced, think about all the things that would have to go wrong to create the worst-case scenario. Lay out the steps: “___ would have to happen, then ___, then ___, then ___, then ___.” The more steps that would have to fall into place to create the worst-case scenario, the better your chances are that it won’t happen.

With stressful events, it’s possible that things can go wrong, and that is fine to acknowledge, however, there is quite a difference between being appropriately concerned about something and inducing intense fear via catastrophizing. Work on being realistic about the outcome, and you’ll notice feeling calmer in the face of stressful events.

If you struggle with worst-case thinking or other cognitive distortions and want to work onthem in counseling, I’d love to chat with you. Please give our office a call, and we can discuss further.