Decatastrophizing Is the What If Technique

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A hallmark of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is consistent anxiety and worry that is out of proportion to a given situation. Often, the anxiety is persistent and can occur with even common triggers. Most of the worry is directed at potential negative consequences of some event or circumstance. For example, a person may worry for hours that a small mistake at work would lead to being fired or that minor social awkwardness would lead to losing a friend.

Other people may view these thoughts as ridiculous or irrational, but for the person with GAD, the worry about potential outcomes is very real. 

What If?

There are many ways to go about challenging the reality of these thoughts and one common way is called “decatastrophizing.” This technique is part of cognitive therapy and is designed to have the person realistically confront the feared negative outcome. Essentially, decatastrophizing requires a person to ask “what if” the terrible things did indeed happen. What would he or she do in response? It aims to address the anxiety by instead of tackling the worry itself, but the outcome. By focusing on the next steps after the worst possible scenario, you can think of a plan and potentially come to the realization that it would not be as earth-shattering as you imagine. 

For the above examples, you could ask “what if I actually was fired, what would I do?” The response is generally: Although it may be tough for a period of time, I would have to find a new job.

In the other example, you may conclude “It would be painful and embarrassing, but I would get over it and find a new friend.” While these are serious outcomes, they are not life-ending or completely devastating. It is possible to move on. 

Try It!

To practice, divide a sheet of paper into three columns.

In the first, write a feared negative outcome. In the second, write it as a “what if” sentence. In the third column write what you would actually do. Check in with yourself to see if actually confronting the fear and making a plan reduces the anxiety associated with it. If it leads to another fear such as embarrassment, then make that the next fear in the first column and continue. See if you can get to a place of calm and security.

The magic in this technique is that it allows us to create plans for these feared situations, which gives us more control over them and reduces our worry about them. It takes away the mystery and allows us to reassure ourselves that regardless of what happens, we will be OK and that we can overcome almost any of these situations.

This is just one method that you may find useful in addressing your anxiety. If, however, your anxiety is so severe that it is interfering with your daily life, such as harming your career or relationships, then it's time to consider seeing a therapist. Try to find a healthcare provider specializing in anxiety disorders who can help you with GAD and help you get back on track. 


Boyles, A. "What is Catastrophizing?" Psychology Today, 2013.