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It’s a Catastrophe! The Fine Art of Catastrophizing

by on May 19th, 2006
It’s a Catastrophe! The Fine Art of Catastrophizing

It’s a Catastrophe!

Today’s common understanding of “catastrophe” – a sudden disaster – is not the word’s original meaning.  It first meant “a reversal of what is expected,” something altogether more broad, more benign and perhaps more useful (you’ll see the connection with words like “apostrophe,” whose etymology means in effect a “turning point.”) The extension of meaning to “sudden disaster” was first recorded in 1748, some 200 years after the first use of the word.

The Fine Art of Catastrophizing

Many of us unknowingly invite catastrophe (the modern definition) into our lives on a regular basis.  Not that anything bad happens.  It’s just that we tend to look at a challenge that is facing us, and then imagine the very worst thing that could happen.  This is what it sounds like for me:

I could never challenge my boss…

… because she might get angry with me…
… and then she’d put me on nothing but bad projects…

… and then I’d fail at those projects…

… and then I’d lose my job…

… and then I wouldn’t be able to find another job…

… and then my wife would leave me…

… and then I’d have to sell the house…

… and then I’d start drinking…

… and then I’d end up on the streets, homeless…

… and then I’d be dead before I’m 40…

… and no one will even notice.

It’s almost humorous when you see it written down like this.  But for many of us this style of thinking is all too familiar.  It paralyzes us.  It keeps us small.  It keeps us playing safe and not taking chances to do something differently, to explore something new.

This type of thinking has been labelled “catastrophizing,” and is symptomatic of a way of seeing the world that sees the bad that happens to you as part of a pervasive and ubiquitous tide of pain and evil that happens to everyone, everywhere.  The term was made popular by Dr Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (RBET), a form of cognitive therapy.  (Cognitive therapists believe that, basically, to get better you need to start thinking differently.  And the bottom line in explaining RBET is “The world’s not fair.  Deal with it.”)

Catastrophizing is Bad for your Health

Catastrophizing is more than just a limiting way of thinking.  It’s actually bad for your health.  A study in 1998 by psychologist Dr Christopher Peterson concluded that the tendency to catastrophize was linked to an increased risk of dying before the age of 65.  “Males with a tendency to catastrophize were at the highest risk for early death,” Prof. Christopher Peterson says. “They were 25 percent more likely to die by age 65 than men with other [ways of viewing the world], and they were at especially high risk for deaths by accident or violence.”

Breaking the Castrophizing Cycle

Here are two ways to break the cycle.

Write down the whole catastrophizing process – like the example I’ve written out above.  Then, for each of the different steps, estimate the odds of that actually happening to you.  For instance, in the example above, “she might be angry with me” might have a 20% (0.20) chance of happening, “she’d put me on nothing but bad projects” might have a 3% (0.03) chance of happening, and so on.  You can then estimate the actual chance of the final catastrophe happening by multiplying together the various percentages (for instance, 0.20 x 0.03 x …).

The second technique is even faster, and its one I’ve borrowed from Benjamin Zander and his book The Art of Possibility.  Stand up, throw your arms in the air, and declare out loud “How fascinating!” This is effective because it shifts your physical state, it points to how seriously you’re taking everything (and suggests you lighten up!), and it frames the situation as a learning moment.

And in the end, remember Mark Twain’s comment: “I’ve had a lot of problems in my life and most of them never happened.”

Resources for Dealing with Catastrophes:

  • Michael Bungay Stanier, Get Unstuck & Get Going …on the stuff that matters
  • Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – particularly Habit 1 (Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence)
  • Benjamin Zander & Rosamund Stone Zander, The Art of Possibility
  • Kate Byron & Stephen Mitchell, Loving What Is:  Four Questions That Can Change Your Life
  • Richard Carson, Taming Your Gremlin
  • Albert Ellis, How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You
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About the Author: Michael Bungay Stanier is author of the best selling coaching tool, Get Unstuck & Get Going .on the stuff that matters available at Get Unstuck and Get Going. He believes that everyone is capable of Great Work. A certified coach and Rhodes Scholar, he works with coaches, trainers, teams and organizations to help them get unstuck and get going on the stuff that matters. Sign up for Michael.s free Outside the Lines ezine at Box of Crayons. Copyright Michael Bungay Stanier, Box of Crayons. Reprint permission available by request. Article must be complete and must include all contact information above. Apply to

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