Resilience and Disability

VI. Some things to unlearn so you can manage a disability.

a. Change your thinking: Don’t be a catastrophic thinker

Problems and SolutionsCatastrophic thinking can be defined as ruminating about irrational, worst-case outcomes.  If you have a disability, there is no shortage of these that you can come up with.  Unfortunately, doing this increases your anxiety and can prevent people from taking action in a situation where action is required.  Being decisive and being able to think clearly and realistically is essential if you are to manage your disability.

Here is an example.  You have just had your annual physical which includes blood work.  Your physician’s nurse calls to ask you to come back in and meet with the doctor regarding the results of the blood work.  She tells you that the doctor will explain his reasons.  You are worried.  You begin to think about all the possibilities.  At least the negative ones.  It may be your prostate.  You may have prostate cancer.  You’ll probably have to have surgery and be off from work for some time.  Things are difficult at work right now.  You may lose your job.  If you lose the job, you will not be able to pay your mortgage and may lose the house, etc., etc. 

Here’s another example.  Your wife has a routine mammogram which reveals a small mass in one of her breasts.  Her physician recommends that she have a biopsy during the next week.  You are worried.  You’re concerned about how your wife will react to this.  What if it is breast cancer?  You both work full time and share the care of your two children.  She may have to stop working for some time.  This will make things very difficult financially for the family.  You could fall behind on the mortgage payments and lose the house, etc., etc.

Catastrophic thinking needs to be disputed.  In order to do this, you must first identify the thinking 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, you have never had any difficulty with your prostate, and there is no history of prostate cancer in your family.  Your physician’s examination of your prostate during the physical revealed no enlargement or other indications that there might be a problem.  In the second case, your wife has no family history that would increase the likelihood of her having breast cancer.  She takes good care of herself.  The lump may be benign.  Many are.

The 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.  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 means scheduling an appointment with your physician to find out what his concerns are.  You have no evidence at this point in time that the news will be bad.  If it is, you can keep in mind that you have accumulated some sick leave, that your insurance coverage is good, that you have a short-term disability plan and that your older kids live nearby and could help out.  In the second example, you need to wait for the results of the biopsy rather than jumping to conclusions.  You may want to keep in mind that your wife and you have been through difficult times before, that you have family nearby who could help out if need be, etc., etc.  Once you have more evidence and facts, you can begin to weigh them and develop a realistic contingency plan for dealing with the situation. 

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 and discuss these worries and persistent negative thoughts. 

Catastrophic thinking needs to be managed, not discounted.  There is often much to be learned from these persistent negative thoughts which may relate to old beliefs and core values which 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.

b. Stop being a pessimist: Examine the way you explain things

If you have an acquired a disability, chances are your way of explaining the world was well entrenched before the disability occurred.  If you were born with a disability, the disability undoubtedly shaped the way you have explained events in your world.

We learn to explain the things that happen to us primarily by listening to and observing how others explain the world.  Our “explanatory style,” as Seligman has labeled it, can determine whether our perspective is one of being an optimist or a pessimist.  If we assume that both good and bad events are permanent, we are more likely to react with dejection and depression, especially when the good things go south.  On the other hand, if we assume that both good and bad events are temporary, that all things will pass, we are more likely to feel optimistic and positive about our world.  If we assume that one good event or bad event can make everything good or bad, we again are more likely to feel dejected and depressed, especially when the one good event, e.g., getting the promotion or the new job, doesn’t make everything in your life better.  On the other hand, if we keep a healthy perspective, we assume that both good and bad events have a specific impact on our lives but do not change everything, we are more likely to be optimistic regarding the present and the future.

And last of all, if we assume when bad things happen that somebody must be blamed, that “somebody” may be ourselves.  At the least, we may spend a good deal of time and attention trying to determine who caused the problem.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be accountable for what we do or that we shouldn’t hold other people accountable for their actions.  Blaming is account-ability, but with a huge dose of negative emotion attached to it.  Negative emotion is seldom helpful in managing or dealing with difficult situations.

Permanence, pervasiveness and personal blame are three thinking patterns that in general do not work well, especially in difficult situations.  A couple of other patterns of faulty thinking are “conformation bias, accepting only information and data that support your current beliefs.”  “Don’t bother me with the facts.”  And dichotomous thinking, e.g., all or none thinking in which events are either black or white.  In general, these are faulty thinking patterns that we can change.  They are thinking traps that undermine our resilience.

c. Learn to avoid thinking traps

Hill (2001, pp. 65-66) and others have described in some detail these thinking traps. They include:

  1. Over-generalization. This is a tendency to view a single temporary event as a general permanent of affairs. We often use the words “never or always” when that simply is not an accurate description of what has occurred.
  2. Jumping to conclusions. We jump to making a judgment about a person or a situation when all the facts aren’t in.
  3. Exaggeration or magnification. This is the proverbial “making the mountain out of the molehill.”
  4. Minimization. We may discount or minimize either the positive or the negative elements of a situation. We may minimize our accomplishments or we may discount the potential risk that a situation may present.
  5. Emotional reasoning. We assume the way we feel is the way things really are. We do not look at the situation objectively or take in to account that others may see it differently.

Would you like to learn more about yourself? The skills and the attitudes of resilience of resilience are part of a broader side of skills and attitudes that re known as emotional intelligence. If you would like to learn more about emotional intelligence, Goleman’s 1998 book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, is an excellent resource.


Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam.

Hill, K.L. (2001). Framework for Sports Psychologists: Enhancing Sport Performance. Champagne, IL: Human Kinetics.


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