Catastrophic thinking can be defined as ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes. Needless to say, it can increase anxiety and prevent people from taking action in a situation where action is required. This can be especially true in a crisis situation.
Here is an example of how it works. You're a police officer. You're working the late shift. The weather is bad. It's been snowing now for 3 hours. The roads are slick, and there are a number of traffic accidents that you and your department are working. It's eight o'clock. You call home to check on your wife and family. You have two young sons. Your wife doesn't answer the call. You quickly become convinced that something bad has happened, even though you talked with her a few hours ago, and she was not planning on going out because of the bad weather, you convince yourself that she has and that her and your children have been involved in an of accident Even though you have no evidence to back up what you're thinking, rather than concentrating on your work or you're driving, you begin to ruminate about this "catastrophe."
Here's another example. You're a member of the National Guard. You have been deployed to Afghanistan. You have been there a couple of months. You have talked with your husband and your children each week. Last night you tried to reach them. The connection was bad. You begin to think about the stress that your deployment is putting on your husband and your family. A thought pops in your head. "He's left me." You begin to obsess about this. Even though the two of you have been married for some time and never separated, you begin to think that he has become involved with someone else who can be there for him and the children. You have no evidence to support this belief, but you begin to ruminate about it rather than focusing on your responsibilities to yourself and your unit.
Catastrophic thinking needs to be disputed. In order to do this, you must first identify it for what it is, an irrational worst-case scenario. The second step in the process of dealing with catastrophic thinking is to identify best-case possibilities. In the first case, your wife may be putting the children to bed, since 8 or 8:30 is their bedtime. She may not have heard the phone. It is unlikely that she is going to go out in such bad weather. She is not a risk taker.
A third step is to look at these best-case possibilities and identify whether or not they are most likely outcomes. In order to do this, you must control your fear and be able to think in a rational fashion. After weighing the evidence and facts available to you, you need to develop a realistic contingency plan for coping with the situation. In the first example, this may mean simply calling back later in the evening. In the second example, a contingency plan may be contacting your husband and identifying an appropriate time and place when the two of you can discuss your relationship and the stress that your deployment is placing on the relationship.
In the Master Resiliency Training Program for the U.S. Army that Dr. Seligman and his colleagues have developed, the emphasis is placed on soldiers addressing these issues at a later time and place so that they can focus on their present mission. They can discuss their worries and persistent negative thoughts later.
Catastrophic thinking needs to be managed, not discounted. There is often much to be learned from these persistent negative thoughts that may relate to old beliefs and core values that may drive emotional reactions and generate fear. These "icebergs," as Seligman refers to them, need to be examined to determine how meaningful, accurate and useful they are to the individual in the present situation they are confronting. Flexibility in being able to question and change these beliefs and values is often the key to managing catastrophic thinking.
For more information about Dr. Seligman's work with the military see the January 2010 issue of the American Psychologist.