Catastrophizing about pain

Animated landscape of a desolate environment with meteors falling from the sky.

One type of thinking that focuses on negative thoughts is called “catastrophizing”. This type of thinking is particularly common in people with chronic pain.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a catastrophe as: an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster.

Catastrophizing may include one or more of the following types of thoughts:

Helplessness – feeling like you can’t do anything about your pain

Magnification - thinking of your pain as the worst thing in the world

Rumination - thinking about your pain over and over

Specific examples of catastrophizing thoughts are:

“My pain is going to last forever.”

“There is nothing that I can do to make my pain any better. It is just going to get worse for the rest of my life.”

“If I exercise, I am probably going to get a horrible injury and then my pain will be unbearable and I won’t be able to move anymore.”

One way to know if you are catastrophizing is to look at the facts. Ask yourself, “How likely is it that my negative thoughts will come true?” If a friend came to you with the same situation, how would you discuss it with them and problem solve solutions?

Have you ever catastrophized about something? If so, why don’t you think about what it was, how it felt and how you could have dealt with it better? We have all survived thoughts of catastrophe and we know that not all worrisome events come true.

People who catastrophize about their pain tend to take longer to recover because they avoid situations that might be painful (such as physical therapy) and are more strongly affected by their pain than people who don’t catastrophize.

These people may believe that their chronic pain is a sign of ongoing damage and may work hard to avoid situations that may make their pain worse (such as crowded hallways at school or work, completing their physiotherapy exercises). However, research tells us that, for most people, chronic pain is not a sign of ongoing damage in your body. Instead, it is the result of overexcited nerves that need to be trained by using the affected area regularly and doing exercises prescribed by a healthcare provider​.

As with other issues discussed in this section, it is important to talk to your family doctor if you find that you are catastrophizing. They might be able to refer you to a pain psychologist who can teach you helpful “talk back” techniques to challenge and overcome your catastrophic thoughts. As you learn how to do this, you will feel more confident in your ability to return to all the activities that hold meaning in your life.