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. 


CBT for Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia in Older Adults

CBT studyBackground: Older adults with panic disorder and agoraphobia (PDA) are underdiagnosed and undertreated, while studies of cognitive?behavioral therapy (CBT) are lacking. This study compares the effectiveness of CBT for PDA in younger and older adults.

Methods: A total of 172 patients with PDA (DSM?IV) received manualized CBT. Primary outcome measures were avoidance behavior (Mobility Inventory Avoidance scale) and agoraphobic cognitions (Agoraphobic Cognitions Questionnaire), with values of the younger (18–60 years) and older (?60 years) patients being compared using mixed linear models adjusted for baseline inequalities, and predictive effects of chronological age, age at PDA onset and duration of illness (DOI) being examined using multiple linear regressions.

Results: Attrition rates were 2/31 (6%) for the over?60s and 31/141 (22%) for the under?60s group (?² = 3.43, df = 1, P = .06). Patients in both age groups improved on all outcome measures with moderate?to?large effect sizes. Avoidance behavior had improved significantly more in the 60+ group (F = 4.52, df = 1,134, P = .035), with agoraphobic cognitions showing no age?related differences. Baseline severity of agoraphobic avoidance and agoraphobic cognitions were the most salient predictors of outcome (range standardized betas 0.59 through 0.76, all P?values < .001). Apart from a superior reduction of agoraphobic avoidance in the 60+ participants (? = ?0.30, P = .037), chronological age was not related to outcome, while in the older patients higher chronological age, late?onset type and short DOI were linked to superior improvement of agoraphobic avoidance.

Conclusions: CBT appears feasible for 60+ PDA?patients, yielding outcomes that are similar and sometimes even superior to those obtained in younger patients.

Hendriks, G.-J., Kampman, M., Keijsers, G. P. J., Hoogduin, C. A. L., & Voshaar, R. C. O. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for panic disorder with agoraphobia in older people: A comparison with younger patients. Depression and Anxiety, 31, 8, 669-677.


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.

Impact of CBT on Self-Efficacy in Panic Disorders

CBT studyCognitive models of panic disorder (PD) with or without agoraphobia have stressed the role of catastrophic beliefs of bodily symptoms as a central mediating variable of the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Perceived ability to cope with or control panic attacks, panic self-efficacy, has also been proposed to play a key role in therapeutic change; however, this cognitive factor has received much less attention in research. The aim of the present review is to evaluate panic self-efficacy as a mediator of therapeutic outcome in CBT for PD using descriptive and meta-analytic procedures. We performed systematic literature searches, and included and evaluated 33 studies according to four criteria for establishing mediation. Twenty-eight studies, including nine randomized waitlist-controlled studies, showed strong support for CBT improving panic self-efficacy (criterion 1); ten showed an association between change in panic self-efficacy and change in outcome during therapy (criterion 2); three tested, and one established formal statistical mediation of panic self-efficacy (criterion 3); while four tested and three found change in panic self-efficacy occurring before the reduction of panic severity (criterion 4). Although none of the studies fulfilled all of the four criteria, results provide some support for panic self-efficacy as a mediator of outcome in CBT for PD, generally on par with catastrophic beliefs in the reviewed studies.

Fentz, H. N., Arendt, M., O’Toole, M. S., Hoffart, A., & Hougaard, E. (2014). The mediational role of panic self-efficacy in cognitive behavioral therapy for panic disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 60, 23-33.

Internet-Based CBT is Effective for Panic Disorder

OBJECTIVE: Guided Internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy (ICBT) for panic disorder has been shown to be efficacious in several randomized controlled trials. However, the effectiveness of the treatment when delivered within routine psychiatric care has not been studied. The aim of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of ICBT for panic disorder within the context of routine psychiatric care.

METHOD: We conducted a cohort study investigating all patients (n = 570) who had received guided ICBT for panic disorder between 2007 and 2012 in a routine care setting at an out-patient psychiatric clinic providing Internet-based treatment. The primary outcome measure was the Panic Disorder Severity Scale-Self-report (PDSS-SR).

RESULTS: Participants made large improvements from screening and pretreatment assessments to posttreatment (Cohen’s d range on the PDSS-SR = 1.07-1.55). Improvements were sustained at 6-month follow-up.

CONCLUSIONS: This study suggests that ICBT for panic disorder is as effective when delivered in a routine care context as in the previously published randomized controlled trials.

Hedman, E., Ljo?tsson, B., Ru?ck, C., Bergstro?m, J., Andersson, G., Kaldo, V., Jansson, L., … Lindefors, N. (January 01, 2013). Effectiveness of internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy for panic disorder in routine psychiatric care. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 128, 6, 457-67.

CBT Affects Automatic Threat Processing in Patients with Panic Disorder

According to a recent study published in Biological Psychiatry, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) impacts automatic threat processing early on in treatment for patients with panic disorder. Research suggests that biased processing of emotional information is an underlying mechanism of affective disorders and influences the effectiveness of interventions used to treat them. For example, when simultaneously shown a face with a negative expression and a face with a neutral expression, patients with anxiety will automatically direct their attention to the face with the negative expression. This is believed to increase the likelihood of anxiety attacks.

Pharmacological treatment methods have been shown to reduce the automatic threat processing bias after an acute, short-term dose, before changes in anxiety and mood become evident. These changes have been shown to be predictive of later changes in therapeutic effects measured 6 weeks later, suggesting that the early changes in automatic biases drive recovery. While CBT has been shown to reduce the automatic threat processing bias as well, it is usually assumed that CBT functions primarily as a top-down treatment approach, primarily targeting more explicit cognitive beliefs and control processes rather than automatic processes. By this view, CBT would only reduce the automatic threat processing bias over time with repeated practice and learning. The current study sought to examine the effects of an acute-dose CBT administration on the automatic threat processing bias.

Participants (n=28) satisfied DSM-IV criteria for panic disorder and were randomly assigned to either the treatment group (n=14), which received a single session of CBT, or the control group (n=14), which received no intervention. Participants completed a faces dot probe task the day after treatment, which measured reaction times to the presentation of negative, neutral, and happy expression faces. Additionally, participants’ general clinical symptoms were measured at baseline, the day after treatment, and at a 4-week follow-up. Participants’ responses to a stress test, which placed them in situations designed to elicit anxious reactions, were also measured at all three test times to provide evidence for the efficacy of the single CBT session.

Results showed that the treatment group showed significantly reduced vigilance for the negative expression faces one day following treatment, while the control group showed no reduction. The two groups did not differ in measures of clinical symptoms at baseline or the day after treatment. However, the treatment group showed significant reductions in fear of physical symptoms and agoraphobia severity at the 4-week follow-up, while the control group showed no changes. In fact, 35.7% of patients in the treatment group fulfilled criteria for agoraphobia recovery at the follow-up, with their scores falling within the range of healthy individuals. The treatment group also reported lower stress in response to the stress tests both the day after treatment and at the 4-week follow-up. The reduction in fear bias was also attributed to 22% of the variance in symptom improvement over time.

These results indicate that a single session of CBT rapidly reduces the automatic threat processing bias, before the more explicit cognitive changes occur. This finding contradicts the generally assumed model of CBT, suggesting that it is more similar to pharmacological models, at least for anxiety and panic disorders, than previously thought. The results also provide evidence for the predictive effects of automatic threat processing bias reduction on overall symptom improvement over time, suggesting that this is a key component to the effective treatment of panic disorders. Additionally, these results imply that a subset of roughly one-third of panic disorder patients may only require a single session of CBT in order to recover from co-morbid agoraphobia.

Reinecke, A., Waldenmaier, L., Cooper, M. J., & Harmer, C. J. (2013). Changes in Automatic Threat Processing Precede and Predict Clinical Changes with Exposure-Based Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Panic Disorder. Biological Psychiatry.

Individualized Internet-CBT Reduces Symptoms in Adults with Panic Attacks

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, individually tailored, internet-based cognitive behavior therapy (iCBT) may help alleviate panic symptoms and comorbid anxiety and depression. The current study examined the efficacy of iCBT for adults with reoccurring panic attacks. Participants (n=57) were randomly assigned to either receive treatment immediately (n=29), or to a waitlist control group (n=28).  Treatment included eight weeks of therapist-guided and individually-tailored, modular CBT designed to target participants’ comorbid symptoms. At post-treatment, 67% of participants in the experimental group showed significant improvements in symptoms, as compared to 11% in the control group. At a 12-month follow up, 70% of participants interviewed had maintained improvements. These results suggest that tailored iCBT may be a valuable, short- and long-term treatment option for individuals with panic and comorbid anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Silfvernagel, K., Carlbring, P., Kabo, J., Edström, S., Eriksson, J., Månson, L., & Andersson, G. (2012). Individually tailored internet-based treatment for young adults and adults with panic attacks: Randomized controlled trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 14(3) e65.