Catastrophizing and Self-Fulfilling Prophesies

Posted: January 8, 2023 in Uncategorized

Martin Seligman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in the most issue of Time (Jan 16, 53) about the nature of catastrophizing – the mind’s concocting of the most terrible outcomes. It is a habitual way of thinking, often shaped very early and deeply engrained in the neural functions of the brain. The impacts and outcomes of catastrophic thinking are not only descriptive but predictive; that kind of thinking presages outcomes.

Their research involved tracking every single one of the 79,438 U.S. Army Soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013. On their first day in the Army they all took a psychological questionnaire which delved into exactly these questions. The results profiled extreme pessimistic thinking in such statements as “When bad things happen to me, I expect more bad things to happen” and “When I fail at something, I give up all hope.”

Unsurprisingly, the results of that one questionnaire provided the most accurate predictor of who would and would not develop PTSD and to what degree. The psychological state of the service member before entering zones of great stress was the most impactful metric of all metrics. “Catastrophizers who faced severe combat stress were almost four times as likely as non-catastrophizers to get PTSD over the course of their service.”

If combat is one of the most extreme forms of stress facing a human being, other stressors function in the same way, to a lesser degree. And the attitudes, beliefs and subconscious assumptions we carry most determine the level of resilience we will have in facing the most difficult challenges of our lives.

Though stress, conflict, and trauma will never be eliminated from life, the ways in which we move away from catastrophizing to different beliefs and expectations will have a one-to-one influence on how we handle those stressors. Beliefs matter. Assumptions matter. Unresolved emotional legacies matter. And above all, hope – dynamic and positive hope – matters above all else.

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