De-Catasrophize Your Thinking

David’s relationship with Mel is getting serious. Mel’s parents have invited them both over for dinner. David, being a traditional man, feels the need to ask Mel’s father for permission to marry his daughter. Mel’s father is a professor of physics. David is a plumber, without an academic qualification to his name. David has made up his mind that the meeting is going to be a disaster.

He imagines Mel’s father looking over his spectacles with disapproval, asking what gives him, a plumber, the right to marry his beautiful, educated daughter.

Mel tries to reassure David that her parents are kind, accepting people and his job will not be an issue. However, Mel’s reassurance makes no difference and David continues to focus on an extremely negative outcome. This is often referred to as catastrophizing and occurs when a person expects the worst to happen, blowing it way out of proportion. It occurs also when people tell themselves a situation is unbearable or awful, when it is really just uncomfortable or a nuisance. Blowing things out of proportion can stop a person from taking on new challenges because they only focus on failure.

When David comes to see me, he is thinking of turning down the invitation, feigning illness. It is understandable that David feels apprehensive about meeting his prospective in‐laws and asking for permission to marry Mel.

However, what makes it awful? Where is the evidence that Mel’s father will disapprove of David? Even if he were to disapprove, can it truly be described as 100% terrible? After all, Mel has pointed out that she will marry David without her father’s blessing.

The emotional Richter scale

The seismic activities of earthquakes are measured on the Richter scale. A great way to drastically reduce catastrophic thinking is to measure catastrophising on an emotional Richter scale.

Emotional Richter scale

Not bad                                                                  The worst an event could be


On a scale of 0 to 100, I ask David to place an X on the spot that indicates how bad he feels it would be if Mel’s father disapproves of their intention to marry.

David puts an X at 95%, which is very high.

Mel’s father disapproves = X


I then ask David what could happen that would be worse than being rejected by Mel’s parents. David replies that he could be run over on the way to meet Mel’s parents.

I ask him if, in the unlikely event that he was run over, where he would place the X on the scale.

David places the X at 100%.

I then ask David what could be worse than this, to which David replies that he could die as a result of being run over. David then tries to add another 10% to the scale to represent the seriousness of dying. When I explain to David that nothing can be higher than 100% bad, he realises he will have to re‐evaluate the seriousness of the previous examples by lowering the other two Xs on the scale.

I continue to ask David for other examples of what could be worse than being rejected by Mel’s parents. We get as far as a nuclear bomb going off in Mel’s parents’ garden. Amid tears of laughter at the thought of a nuclear bomb exploding in a physics professor’s back garden, David is now able to see that he was exaggerating the severity of being refused permission to marry Mel. He also concludes, as Mel had implied, that if her father were to be so unreasonable, he wouldn’t have to take it seriously.

After our work, the emotional Richter scale looks like this .

Mel’s father disapproves of our intention to marry = X
Nuclear bomb in garden = X


Being run over = X
Dying = X

By writing down some examples of worse but unlikely things that could happen, David is able to see how he has been blowing the event out of all proportion. The following summer David and Mel marry, and her father gives her away.

If you find yourself exaggerating the terror of a situation, use the emotional Richter scale to put things into perspective. Ask yourself: “Am I overreacting? Would it really be that terrible?” This can lower your anxiety considerably.

An extract from my new book “The Power of Accepting Yourself” Publisher: Bookline and Thinker Ltd (10 Jan 2011)

Available from Amazon and good bookshops.

© Copyright 2011 Michael Cohen

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