When something really bad happens to you, how do you think about your future? Catastrophizers think, Everything will now unravel, and my life will be ruined. This mindset turns out to be an enormous impediment to happiness and, even worse, it is a major risk factor for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).We found this out by tracking every single one of the 79,438 U.S. Army soldiers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013. On their very first day in the Army, they took a psychological questionnaire asking them to rate how they felt about several statements related to pessimism and its most extreme form, catastrophization. For example:
[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]“When bad things happen to me, I expect more bad things to happen”“When bad things happen to me, I blame myself for them”“I have no control over the things that happen to me”“When bad things happen to me, I cannot stop thinking about how much worse things will get”“When I have a physical problem, I am likely to think that it is something very serious”“When I fail at something, I give up all hope”“I respond to stress by making things worse than they are.”It turns out that we could have used the day-one questionnaire to predict robustly who would develop PTSD. Catastrophizers who faced severe combat stress were almost four times as likely as noncatastrophizers to get PTSD over the course of their service. But even those catastrophizers who faced minimal combat were at greater risk for PTSD than noncatastrophizers, and at all other levels of combat as well.
Seligman, PhD, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the Positive Psychology Center, and former president of the American Psychological Association. He is the co-author, with Dr. Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, of Tomorrowmind