Catastrophic Thinking: A Transdiagnostic Process Across Psychiatric Disorders

Norman WebNorman Cotterell, Ph.D.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy


Beck and Gellatly (2016) propose that catastrophic thinking is a central feature in psychopathology. Such thinking magnifies both the immediate and eventual consequences of any perceived threat. A variety of disorders can be conceptualized as such: Clients magnify external threats (accidents, attacks, arson) but most notably misinterpret and magnify perceived internal threats. Sensations, thoughts, and emotions are seen as signs of immediate physical or psychological catastrophe.

For example:

  • Panic — immediate catastrophic consequences of an unexpected physical sensation: “If my heart races, I’m dying.” “If I feel lightheaded, I’m about to faint.”
  • Social Phobia — catastrophic misinterpretations of the social consequences of anxiety: “If people see me sweat, I’ll be judged, shunned, rejected or shamed.”
  • Agoraphobia — catastrophic beliefs about the consequences of anxiety: “If I panic, I’ll be trapped.”
  • Specific phobias — catastrophic beliefs about a feared object or situation: “If I get on an airplane, I won’t be able to handle the anxiety.”
  • Health anxiety — catastrophic consequences of an unexpected physical sensation, or image: “If my chest hurts, I have heart, lung, or infectious disease. If the doctor sends me for tests, it means I’m seriously ill.”
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder — Catastrophic misinterpretation of an intrusive thought: “If I think something unacceptable, it means I myself am unacceptable. Thinking it is as bad as doing it.”
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder — Catastrophic beliefs about the reoccurrence of danger: “If it happened before, it’s likely to happen to me again.” “Flashbacks mean danger.”
  • Pain — Catastrophic beliefs about pain and its consequences: “If I’m in pain, it is unsafe to move, and I must stop my activities.”
  • Traumatic Brain injury — Catastrophic misinterpretations of post concussive symptoms: “If I have a headache, my brain injury is getting worse.”

Beck and Gellatly regard such thinking as an essential ingredient in the development and maintenance of these anxiety disorders. They identify 6 essential ingredients of a cycle that fuels them: Catastrophic Beliefs (“I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying,”) triggered by a Precipitating Event (heart palpitations) results in both Anxiety Symptoms (shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling out of control) and an Interpretive Bias (“If my chest hurts, I’m having a heart attack”). These, in turn trigger an Attentional Fixation (“There’s no other way to look at this!”) and an Attentional Bias (“I really need to pay close attention to my chest.”) And these attentional factors serve to refuel the anxiety, the interpretative bias, the catastrophic beliefs and each other.

Beck and Gellatly propose taking catastrophizing into account would be useful in the diagnosis, prediction, prevention, and treatment of psychopathology. Future research and exploration will answer such questions as: Which catastrophic beliefs differentiate which conditions? Who is susceptible to developing such beliefs? How do we educate people to promote resiliency against such beliefs? What interventions will best enable clients to counter these beliefs?

Although they point to catastrophic beliefs as the key essential factor, other factors may serve as points of interventions. Decatastrophizing enables clients to test the validity of catastrophic beliefs through exposure to the sensations. Therapists use panic inductions, for example, to alter the misinterpretation of symptoms. Other techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal, may ameliorate attentional fixation by providing more plausible ways to account for symptoms. Various in-office procedures may modify attentional bias by directing focus to breathing, to objects in the office, or to sounds inside and outside the building. This model may serve as a way to conceptualize the problem and identify where interventions work.

Beck, A.T. & Gellatly, R. Catastrophic Thinking: A Transdiagnostic Process Across Psychiatric Disorders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2016, pp. 1-12.

Why Anxiety Persists

Judith S. Beck, Ph.D. and Robert Hindman, Ph.D.


At our recent Core 2 CBT for Anxiety Disorders workshop, we asked participants what is helpful in managing anxiety? What is not helpful?

Individuals with anxiety disorders unwittingly maintain their conditions by their behavioral strategies and their beliefs.

Rob Web

Robert Hindman, PhD

Avoidance is a hallmark of anxiety. Sometimes the avoidance is blatant, when, for example, an agoraphobic client does not leave the house. But sometimes it is quite subtle. For example, one of our panic patients tightly gripped the steering wheel while driving. A client with obsessive compulsive disorder tries not to think about an idea which is unacceptable to her. One of our most recent clients with social anxiety avoids making eye contact and tries to control his shaking hands.

Worrying is also unhelpful for people with anxiety disorders. Sometimes clients believe that it is important for them to worry in order to prevent danger; however, worrying actually leads to their continually overestimating danger over time. Our anxious clients have beliefs such as, “The world is dangerous.” “I have to be on guard. I need to anticipate any problems that could possibly arise; otherwise I’d be irresponsible.” “If I worry, I can figure out exactly what I should do.”  Then, when the predicted catastrophe doesn’t happen, instead of recognizing that it was not likely to occur, they tell themselves, “It was good that I worried about it or else it might have happened.”

Anxious clients also demand certainty. A client we saw this week told me, “I have to know for sure that nothing bad will happen.” But many outcomes in life are unpredictable, or can’t be predicted with absolute certainty. Assuming that certainty is possible and demanding that they obtain certainty keeps anxiety going. One dysfunctional strategy clients use to demand certainty is constant reassurance seeking.  For example, a client frequently seeks reassurance from her husband that he still loves her and will never leave. Demanding certainty is also associated with her attempts to over-control herself, her husband and children, and even her co-workers.  For instance, she’s constantly texting her husband and children to make certain they’re ok, and will keep on frantically texting them until she hears back.

Judith S. Beck, PhD

Judith S. Beck, PhD

Another habit anxious clients have is paying too much attention to their anxious thoughts. People without anxiety disorders often do an automatic reality check and/or engage in problem solving when they notice anxious thoughts. Or they dismiss them as “just thoughts” and refocus their attention back to the task at hand. When an anxiety disorder is present, though, clients focus on their anxious thoughts, treat them as “facts;” their anxiety increases, and they often engage in an unhelpful action (such as the thought suppression, worry, or reassurance seeking mentioned above).

Perfectionism is also sometimes involved in maintaining anxiety disorders. Another recent client of ours believed, “I should be perfect because if I’m not, I’m vulnerable to bad things happening. I should figure out the perfect solution to any problem. If things aren’t perfect, everything will fall apart.”  The problem with perfectionism is that it’s impossible to be perfect.  When our client doesn’t meet her perfect expectations, she doesn’t think it’s because her standards are unrealistic, but instead, takes it as more evidence that she’s vulnerable to bad things happening, which keeps her anxiety elevated over time.

Finally, clients with anxiety disorders have difficulty tolerating, much less accepting the experience of anxiety because they are “anxious about being anxious”. One client we mentioned above believed that anxiety was bad and that if she didn’t try to control it, it would get worse and worse until she just couldn’t stand it and would “lose control.” You can think of anxiety as energy for a challenge, so when you believe experiencing anxiety is a challenge, you end up getting an additional level of anxiety whenever it shows up.

Fortunately, a large body of literature now supports the efficacy of Cognitive Behavior Therapy in effectively treating anxiety disorders. And treatment has become even more effective in recent years as therapists have added mindfulness to their repertoire of techniques, helping clients label and accept the experience of anxiety and learning, not how to try to rid themselves of it, but how to move anxiety to the background as they focus on whatever valued activity they are engaged in at the moment.


Learn more about the upcoming CBT for Anxiety workshop in Chicago. 


Identical symptomology but different diagnoses: Treatment implications of an OCD versus schizophrenia diagnosis

New Study (1)Abstract
Background: Individuals with identical symptomatology may receive conflicting diagnoses, potentially leading to different treatments. The aims of this study were to assess diagnostic impressions and treatment recommendations for obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) versus schizophrenia-spectrum disorders (SSD).
Methods: Participants (N = 82) were recruited from accredited doctoral programs. All participants were randomized to assess diagnostic impressions and treatment recommendations for 15 vignettes. These were measured across three separate testing sessions.
Results: Large discrepancies in treatment recommendations were found. All participants who selected OCD recommended psychotherapy while only 15.4% of participants who identified the same vignette as schizophrenia suggested psychotherapy. More than half the participants who reported schizophrenia selected antipsychotics as the primary response; medication was not a primary recommendation when the vignette was identified as OCD.
Conclusion: Symptoms conceptualized as SSDs were recommended medication; those same symptoms conceptualized as OCD were recommended psychotherapy. Greater awareness regarding the efficacy of psychosocial treatments for SSDs is needed.

Hunter, N., Glazier, K., & McGinn, L. K. (2015). Identical symptomology but different diagnoses: Treatment implications of an OCD versus schizophrenia diagnosis. Psychosis: Psychological, Social and Integrative Approaches. doi:10.1080/17522439.2015.1044462

Ethical considerations in exposure therapy with children

New Study (1)Abstract:

Despite the abundance of research that supports the efficacy of exposure therapy for childhood anxiety disorders and OCD, negative views and myths about the harmfulness of this treatment are prevalent. These beliefs contribute to the underutilization of this treatment and less robust effectiveness in community settings compared to randomized clinical trials. Although research confirms that exposure therapy is efficacious, safe, tolerable, and bears minimal risk when implemented correctly, there are unique ethical considerations in exposure therapy, especially with children. Developing ethical parameters around exposure therapy for youth is an important and highly relevant area that may assist with the effective generalization of these principles. The current paper reviews ethical issues and considerations relevant to exposure therapy for children and provides suggestions for the ethical use of this treatment.

Gola, A. J., Beidas, S. R., Antinoro-Burke, D., Kratz, E. H. & Fingerhut, R. (2015). Ethical considerations in exposure therapy with children.  Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2015.04.003

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Pediatric Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

New Study (1)

The efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has been the subject of much study over the past fifteen years. Building on a foundation of case studies and open clinical trials, the literature now contains many methodologically sound studies that have compared full CBT protocols to waitlist controls, pill placebo, psychosocial comparison conditions, active medication, combined treatments, and brief CBT. This review is part of a series commissioned by The Canadian Institute for Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (CIOCD) in an effort to publish in one place what is known about the efficacy of treatments for OCD. A total of fourteen studies were identified; collectively their findings support the efficacy of CBT for youth with OCD. CBT protocols that emphasized either strictly behavioral or cognitive conceptualizations have each been found efficacious relative to waitlist controls. Efforts to enhance CBT’s efficacy and reach have been undertaken. These trials provide guidance regarding next steps to be taken to maximize efficacy and treatment availability. Findings from studies in community clinics suggest that significant treatment benefits can be realized and are not reported only from within academic contexts. These findings bode well for broader dissemination efforts. Recommendations for future research directions are provided.

Franklin, M.E., Kratz, H.E., Freeman, J.B., Ivarsson, T., Heyman, I., Sookman,D.,…March, J. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder: Empirical review and clinical recommendations. Psychiatry Research, 227(1), 78-92. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.02.009

Couple-based CBT for Intimate Partners of Those with OCD

CBT studyBackground and Objectives: This study investigated the effect of a couple-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) on the intimate partners of patients. Previous research has shown this intervention to be efficacious in reducing OCD symptoms and comorbidities in patients.

Method: In an open-treatment trial, 16 couples completed the 16-session manualized treatment, and were followed up 6- and 12-months post-treatment.

Results: Multilevel modeling analyses were conducted to examine change over time, and results indicated that relative to baseline, partners showed improvements in relationship functioning, communication, and criticalness in the short-term, and maintained their gains in communication skills over the long-term.

Limitations: The non-controlled design and small sample size limit the certainty of the study’s findings. Conclusions: Overall, this investigation offers preliminary evidence that including intimate partners in couple-based CBT for OCD has no negative effects on partners, and in fact, can provide them with residual positive effects.

Belus, J. M., Baucom, D. H., & Abramowitz, J. S. (2014). The effect of a couple-based treatment for OCD on intimate partners. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, 4, 484-488.

Impact of CBT on Heart Rate for Individuals with Anxiety Disorders

CBT studyIntroduction: The future of psychotherapy relies on the dialog with the basic science, being the identification of psychotherapeutifc biomarkers of efficacy a core necessity. Heart rate (HR) is one of the most studied psychophysiological parameters in anxiety disorders.

Methods: To investigate the impact of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) on the HR of patients with anxiety disorders, we conducted a meta-analysis and systematic review. Electronic searches were conducted in the ISI/Web of Knowledge, PsychINFO and PubMed/MEDLINE for studies which evaluated HR at least once before and after CBT. Keywords related to anxiety disorders, HR and CBT were used in the search.

Results: 474 studies, of which 47 were selected for the systematic review and 8 for the meta-analysis, were identified. The results provide evidence that CBT significantly decreases the HR of posttraumatic stress disorder patients. In social phobia, obsessive–compulsive disorder and acute stress disorder, the results point in the same direction, although it is still early to attribute the decrease in HR to CBT. In specific phobias, traditional exposure therapy showed greater effect size than exposure with distractors or without psycho-education.

Limitations: Most of the randomized trials have not been conducted in accordance with rigorous methodological quality criteria. Conclusions: Standardization in the methods used and in treatment protocols, as well as investigations in groups of patients with low physiological reactivity, are necessary in order to reach better conclusions. Notwithstanding these limitations, HR is beginning to emerge as a potential biomarker of efficacy in anxiety disorders.

Gonçalves, R., Rodrigues, H., Novaes, F., Arbol, J., Volchan, E., Coutinho, E. S. F., . . . Ventura, P. (2015). Listening to the heart: A meta-analysis of cognitive behavior therapy impact on the heart rate of patients with anxiety disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 172, 231-240.

Telephone-CBT is Effective for Adolescents with OCD

OBJECTIVE: Many adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) do not have access to evidence-based treatment. A randomized controlled non-inferiority trial was conducted in a specialist OCD clinic to evaluate the effectiveness of telephone cognitive-behavioral therapy (TCBT) for adolescents with OCD compared to standard clinic-based, face-to-face CBT.

METHOD: Seventy-two adolescents, aged 11 through 18 years with primary OCD, and their parents were randomized to receive specialist TCBT or CBT. The intervention provided differed only in the method of treatment delivery. All participants received up to 14 sessions of CBT, incorporating exposure with response prevention (E/RP), provided by experienced therapists. The primary outcome measure was the Children’s Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale (CY-BOCS). Blind assessor ratings were obtained at midtreatment, posttreatment, 3-month, 6-month, and 12-month follow-up.

RESULTS: Intent-to-treat analyses indicated that TCBT was not inferior to face-to-face CBT at posttreatment, 3-month, and 6-month follow-up. At 12-month follow-up, there were no significant between-group differences on the CY-BOCS, but the confidence intervals exceeded the non-inferiority threshold. All secondary measures confirmed non-inferiority at all assessment points. Improvements made during treatment were maintained through to 12-month follow-up. Participants in each condition reported high levels of satisfaction with the intervention received.

CONCLUSION: TCBT is an effective treatment and is not inferior to standard clinic-based CBT, at least in the midterm. This approach provides a means of making a specialized treatment more accessible to many adolescents with OCD. Clinical trial registration information-Evaluation of telephone-administered cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) for young people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD);; ISRCTN27070832.

Turner, C. M., Mataix-Cols, D., Lovell, K., Krebs, G., Lang, K., Byford, S., & Heyman, I. (2014). Telephone Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adolescents with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Non-inferiority Trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 53, 12, 1298-1307.

CBT is Effective for Pediatric OCD

OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study was to examine the acute effectiveness of manualized exposure-based CBT with a family-based treatment, as an initial treatment for pediatric OCD delivered in regular community child and adolescents outpatient clinics. The report summarizes outcome of the first treatment step in the NordLOTS, which was conducted in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

METHOD: 269 participants, age 7-17, with OCD, received treatment for 14 weekly sessions. Treatment response was defined as CY-BOCS score of ?15 at post treatment.

RESULTS: 241 participants (89.6%) completed all 14 weeks of treatment. Treatment response among the completers was 72.6% (95% CI 66.7%-77.9%). Mixed effects model revealed a statistically significant effect of time F(1,479) = 130.434. Mean symptom reduction on the CY-BOCS was 52.9% (SD = 30.9). The estimated within-group effect size between baseline and post treatment was 1.58 (95% CI: 1.37-1.80).

CONCLUSION: This study found that manualized CBT can be applied effectively in community mental health clinics. These findings underscore the feasibility of implementing exposure-based CBT for pediatric OCD in a regular child and adolescent mental health setting.

Torp, N. C., Dahl, K., Skarphedinsson, G., Thomsen, P. H., Valderhaug, R., Weidle, B., Melin, K. H., … Ivarsson, T. (January 01, 2015). Effectiveness of cognitive behavior treatment for pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder: Acute outcomes from the Nordic Long-term OCD Treatment Study (NordLOTS). Behaviour Research and Therapy, 64, 1, 15-23.

CBT for Treatment of Intolerance of Uncertainty

Intolerance of uncertainty usually involves negative emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to uncertain situations, and it has often been associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Studies show that intolerance of uncertainty may be the common feature within these various anxiety disorders.

The current study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology aims to investigate the relationship between intolerance of uncertainty and emotional disorders such as GAD, OCD, panic disorder, and social phobia, and/or depressive disorders. Thirty-seven participants were randomly assigned to receive eighteen weeks of transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral therapy intervention (Unified Protocol for the Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders; UP) or were waitlisted for treatment.

Results indicated that intolerance of uncertainty was positively correlated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, and that intolerance of uncertainty decreased during CBT treatment. Additionally, reduced post treatment intolerance of uncertainty was associated with reduced post treatment symptoms of depression and anxiety. These results suggest that transdiagnostic treatment to target intolerance of uncertainty can help improve treatment outcomes across emotional disorders.

Boswell, J. F., Thompson-Hollands, J., Farchione, T. J., & Barlow, D. H. (2013). Intolerance of uncertainty: a common factor in the treatment of emotional disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, 6, 630-45.