What is Disaster Thinking? And how to manage it

WWhen something really bad happens to you, how do you think about your future? The catastrophes think, Everything will clear up now, and my life will be ruined. This mindset turns out to be a huge obstacle to happiness and worse, it’s a major risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

We discovered this by tracking each of the 79,438 U.S. Army soldiers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013. On their first day of enlistment in the Army, they performed a Psychological questionnaires asked them to rate their feelings about a number of statements regarding pessimism and its most extreme form, disaster. Eg:

  • “When bad things happen to me, I expect worse things to happen.”
  • “When bad things happen to me, I blame myself for them.”
  • “I have no control over what happens to me.”
  • “When bad things happen to me, I can’t stop thinking about how much worse things will get.”
  • “When I have a physical problem, I often think it is a very serious problem.”
  • “When I fail at something, I give up all hope.”
  • “I deal with stress by making things worse.”

It turns out that we can use the first day questionnaire to predict exactly who will develop PTSD. Disaster survivors who faced severe combat stress were nearly four times more likely to develop PTSD than those who did not cause disasters during service. But even disasterists who face minimal combat are at higher risk of PTSD than non-disasters and at all other levels of combat.

Fighting is almost the culmination of the terrible events that humans have to face. So, what’s the lesson for the rest of us, commoners? If you become a disaster, you will likely suffer more from bad events, and if you have an optimistic mindset, on the contrary, you will be more resilient.

I confess that I am a stroke sufferer, but I take my own medicine. I’ve learned how to fight catastrophe, and you can too. In our upcoming book tomorrow, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and I discuss how you can build this strength. An effective exercise is to “put it in perspective”: you start by imagining a troubling event that has an uncertain, but potentially terrible explanation. For the soldiers, the example is a man who goes missing at night. They start with the worst possible explanation: “He’s dead, and it’s all my fault.” Then the best possible thing: “His radio ran out of battery, and he’ll show up in a few minutes.” Finally, the highest possibility, along with plans for dealing with it: “He’s probably injured, so we need to go back to our steps, find him, and bring him back.” Following this model builds resilience in soldiers.

When COVID-19 broke out as I neared my 78th birthday, I became a disaster: “I am the most vulnerable. I’m dead for sure.” But then I asked myself about the best outcome: “I am very healthy and will likely get rid of it completely.” And then I focused on the most likely outcome, and I planned it out: “I’m going to do the best I can right now, take all the vaccines, and get out of school. mild case, if that happens.” There is no way to completely remove uncertainty from your life. But this exercise is one way to systematically reduce disaster—and thus, both maintain happiness despite uncertainty and develop emotional resilience.

Seligman, PhD, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the Center for Positive Psychology, and past president of the American Psychological Association. He is a co-author, with Dr. Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, of tomorrow.

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