Positive thoughts don't come naturally. Often, we're too busy thinking about what went wrong or what might go wrong. These thoughts stress us out and sometimes make us sad. Scientists tell us, however, that our thoughts have the power to affect our mood and emotions. It takes practice to make uplifting thoughts our first response.
The benefits of positive thoughts, however, are vast. In one study, these types of thoughts seemed to help a person increase overall life satisfaction, reducing anxiety and depression and seeming even to help them improve physical health and reduce their risk of mortality.
Therapists call this Cognitive behavioral therapy. Our cognitions, or thoughts, often get stuck in negative patterns. These habitual grooves cause us to go around and around in circuits that cause us to tell the stories of our lives in certain ways. For example, these grooves may cause us to see ourselves as victimized, angry, entitled, depressed, or defeated. We feed ourselves these thoughts and interpretations, and we feel the same way day after day.
Many of these thoughts, though originally based on facts, have become distorted. In a classic self-help book called "Feeling Good," by David D. Burns,, the author helps readers identity their cognitive distortions and come up with more reality-based and positive perspectives on the truth of their situation. These new ways of thinking help break the willing person out of mental patterns that have caused emotional patterns that have often led to negative behavioral patterns.
Here are some practical ways to change our thinking:
1. For unpleasant and intrusive thoughts: One simple technique that often helps is to block unpleasant thoughts or images is to say "Stop!" loudly and clap your hands once. Over time, if the thoughts or images return, hopefully less frequently, you can simply think "stop." Quickly change to a new activity or focus on a different, more uplifting thought after each episode.
2. Disappointment: Allow yourself at least a few hours or even days to fully engage in your sad, frustrated or painful feelings. At the end of that time, begin to think of ways the situation could have been much worse, or what life circumstance you might find more distasteful than the event you endured. Next, come up with something to be grateful for about the situation. Did it teach you character? Did it build your emotional muscles in some way? Can you relate to a friend in a new way? This can be done repeatedly.
3. Performance anxiety: Do you become weak in the knees when you think about the speech, exam, or presentation facing you? Performance anxiety is a powerful stealer of sleep and emotional comfort in the days prior to the event. Try focusing on a place of pleasant escape while breathing calmly, and visit this place to take a break from the obligations in your real life.
4. Feeling tense and stressed: Practice mindfulness, which is considered a walking meditation that simply requires that you keep your thoughts in the present moment. Notice nature around you, people passing, your own body sensations, your senses. Savor the events of right now.
5. The past has you down: Remember that your future is still waiting on you, untainted and full of possibilities. Since we don't know exactly what it will hold, we may as well imagine the best. Even if it doesn't happen exactly the way we picture it today, we just may get closer than we expected.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at CBI Counseling Center. Email her at tabiupton@bellsouth.