Practicing Positivity: How To Recognize And Manage Catastrophic Thinking

Things go wrong, plans fall apart, mistakes happen, and it’s all a part of life. But how do we learn to cope with this instead of letting fear and negativity control us?

Sometimes, bad things happen to us and we simply learn to move on. But for catastrophic thinkers—or catastrophizers—it may feel like everything is unraveling and their life is ruined, like it’s the end of the world.

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Martin Seligman, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Positive Psychology Center, claims that catastrophizers are at risk for post­traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In their study, 79,438 U.S. Army soldiers were asked to answer a questionnaire, rating statements related to pessimism and catastrophization.

Some examples of statements are “When bad things happen to me, I expect more bad things to happen,” “When I fail at something, I give up all hope,” and “I respond to stress by making things worse than they are.”

According to Seligman, they could have used this questionnaire to predict which soldiers would develop PTSD. It turned out that catastrophizers, even those who faced minimal combat, were much more likely to get PTSD compared to noncatastrophizers from all levels of combat.

“If you catastrophize, you will likely suffer more from bad events, and if you have the opposite, optimistic mindset, you will likely be more resilient,” Seligman writes.

He himself confesses to being a catastrophizer, but this is why he sought to combat this way of thinking. In his book Tomorrow­mind with Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, they emphasize the importance of “putting it in perspective.”

For Seligman, one of his catastrophes happened when COVID-19 broke out near his 78th birthday. In his mind, he thought “I’m in the most vulnerable group. I am sure to die.”

Starting with this worst possible outcome, ask yourself about the best thing that could happen. In his case, it was “I am very healthy and will likely escape altogether.”

After imagining these two extremes, it’s time to focus on the most likely outcome and how you plan to achieve it. For example, “I will isolate for now as best I can, take all the vaccines, and escape with a mild case, if that.”

The future feels uncertain for many of us, and it’s true that sometimes we can’t escape thinking about the worst case scenario. 

But this exercise helps us open our minds to more positive and realistic outcomes, maintaining happiness and building our emotional resilience.

Banner photo via Pixabay.

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