Many years ago when I first heard the word “catastrophizing,” it was spoken by a therapist. My memory of that time may be a little fuzzy, but I recall being surprised that one of my familiar ways of thinking actually had a name. That suggested to me that there was more than one way to view a situation! I had thought there was one reality, one way to see things. I had believed that I perceived things the way they truly were. I’m grateful to say I’ve learned a few things since then.

Catastrophizing is pretty much what it sounds like – mentally turning something into a catastrophe. Another word often used for this way of thinking is “magnifying.” Has anyone said you were blowing things out of all proportion? You might have been catastrophizing. It can become a habit of thought.

We can catastrophize about events from our past, our present, or our future. It is a common thinking trap for folks with ADHD who can be enormously creative. When our thinking is stimulated towards pessimism and expecting the worst, our imaginations can go to town building things into far greater problems than they are or probably ever could be.

Our creativity, when put to work on a potential problem, can create some scary possible outcomes in our minds. The imaginings can be so vivid that one or more of them seem inevitable. We can also imagine that we are completely unable to cope in the imagined situation.

Holidays with all of the associated expectations and hopes can lend themselves to catastrophizing. So here are a few suggestions for dealing with out-of-control imaginations gone negative:

  1. Pause. This is almost always a good first step. It’s key to dealing with catastrophizing. Pausing, breathing deeply for two or three breaths, and mentally disengaging for just a moment gives you a chance to notice what you’ve been thinking. It gives you a chance to choose whether to continue in that thought pattern, or at least to move on to suggestion #2.
  1. Just say, “No.” When you become aware that you are stuck in a catastrophizing rut, ask yourself, “Is this really true?” Almost always the answer is a clear, “No!” It might take some effort to convince yourself that most of what you have been imagining is not true, but it’s worth the effort.
  1. Get outside your head. Talk to a trusted friend if you can’t gain a clear perspective. Allow your fears to see the light of day by sharing them with someone you trust to see if that person has a different perspective. You might try sharing with more than one person if the beliefs are especially stubborn.
  1. Activate positivity. You may know that human beings are inclined to think negatively. Our brains are wired to protect us and to alert us when there is danger. That serves us well at times, but at other times it sends us into cascading negative thoughts that are not protecting us at all. Researchers have determined that one needs to actively focus on positive thoughts at a ratio of at least three positive thoughts for every one negative thought in order to flourish. Sometimes this just means opening our eyes to occasions for celebration. They are usually right in front of us, but we don’t notice them.
  1. Be compassionate – to yourself. One of the best ways I have found to activate self-compassion is through a type of guided meditation called Loving Kindness Meditation. This involves sitting quietly and wishing yourself well through a series of four statements. The statements can differ, depending on who is guiding the meditation, but basically you say, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” After connecting with those wishes for yourself, you broaden your focus and wish the same for a loved one, a friend, someone you don’t know well, someone you dislike, and ultimately the whole world. These are good thoughts for this holiday season and for the rest of the year as well.

I wish you and your loved ones and all beings safety, happiness, health, and ease.


Note: Thanks to Coaches Madeleine Cote and Barbara Luther for the idea of ADHD Thinking Traps!

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