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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Implications of Positive Thinking (Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

So we all know the message behind whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full.  However, I would guess that many do not understand the implications of these ways of thinking or many do not give it enough serious thought to practice positive thinking on a regular basis.  There is much research to suggest that those who see the glass being half-full tend to experience positive health benefits and tend to be happier.
Health implications from positive thinking include (Mayo Clinic, 2011):
·         Increased life span
·         Lower rates of depression
·         Lower levels of distress
·         Greater resistance to the common cold
·         Better psychological and physical well-being
·         Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
·         Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress

There are many theories to explain why positive thinking people have healthier and happier lives.  It could be that having positive outlook on life enables a person to cope better during stressful times. Or that positive thinkers tend to exercise more, eat well, and do not smoke or drink in excess.  Whatever the reasons may be, the benefits alone should make one to consider this approach in life.  Moreover, when children witness their parents practice positive thinking then they are more likely to learn this habit.  By the same token, if children observe their parents practice negative thinking then they will adopt these maladaptive behaviors. For example, if a child attempts tasks (cleaning up, dressing themselves, etc.) at home and they constantly hear from their parents that they are not doing the task at hand well, then that child has inadvertently been exposed to negative thinking. Likewise, imagine the impact if a child constantly hears their parent complain about every little thing in life.  Our environment and experiences shape who we become as adults. 
As parents, we have the power to influence whether our children become positive or negative people.  Below you will common types of negative thinking that people engage in. Identifying these is important in order to understand and convert our negative thinking into positive ones.
Common Examples of Negative Thinking
Personalizing: When something goes wrong, you automatically blame yourself. For example, some plans with friends get canceled and you automatically assume it’s because they did not want to be around you.    
Filtering: You only fish out the negative aspects of an overall positive situation.   A classic example, you set out to complete ten tasks on a given day, but you end up not finishing one.  Guess which one a negative thinker would focus on? Positive thinkers congratulate themselves for completing the nine tasks while negative thinkers harp on the one they did not get to.
Overgeneralizing: This is when you automatically anticipate the worst when something rather minor occurs.  Let’s say, you are running late to work and get stuck in traffic, and then you expect the day to be the worst day ever.  And guess what, it does become a pretty horrible day. People tend to use words such as “always” or “never.”  Another example, your child doesn’t get invited to a birthday party and you or your child concludes that he will be loner for life.
Dichotomous Thinking: This is the all or none thinking. Thinking things in black and white terms.  Extremes without room for negotiations.  For example, if things are not done perfectly then not bothering to do it at all.  A child may refuse to do her homework on a regular basis because she does not want to make mistakes so she figures it is best left undone.  Perfectionists often tend to think this way.
Catastrophizing: Overestimating the chance of a disaster happening.  Let’s say your child has to speak in front of the class and he becomes fearful of this, mainly because he has ingrained in himself that he will be laughed at and his peers will make fun of him.  Or, you think you left the stove on before leaving the house and now the whole house will burn down.  Think of this type as “the world will end” perspective on life.
            Now that you have a sense of the different types of negative thinking, so how does one combat pessimistic way of thinking? It is simple to say “just think of this in a positive way,” but when in fact, this is a very difficult thing to do, especially if you have been exposed to this way of approaching life for a long time.  Unlearning a bad habit and replacing it with a good habit is a difficult task, but it can be done with practice and will!
Strategies for Positive Thinking
Positive Self-talk. You have heard of people chanting to themselves positive statements such as “I am a good person,” “I am intelligent/beautiful,” etc. However, this in of itself is not enough to feel better about oneself.  In fact, some people may argue that this could make some negative thinking people feel worse about themselves.  The key is to replace a negative self-statement with a positive one that you believe in.  For example, if you do not believe that you are beautiful with your big ears then simply saying “I am beautiful” may not be enough to boost your self-esteem.  Rather, focusing on your other positive physical attributes such as your long, shiny hair or beautiful, big eyes will benefit you than ruminating about your big ears. Using positive self-talk takes time and practice for you to feel comfortable with and for it to become a habit. Remember that we tend to be our own worst critic, and very critical of the outside world.  When people lighten up on themselves and over time, they will notice that the world seems a better, friendlier place.
Be Open to Humor.  It’s true that many times laughter is the best medicine.  Especially during tough times, give yourself permission to smile or laugh at everyday things.  When we laugh, we are less stressed. 
Take Action.  If there are things about your life you do not like, then approach it in a positive way in small steps.  It could be about work, daily commute, relationships, finances, etc.   Managing and problem solving small areas is much more feasible than trying to fix everything at once.  
Catch Yourself.  Throughout the day, stop and evaluate your thoughts. If you stop on a negative thought then approach it from a positive angle (also called positive reframing).  You can pretty much positively reframe anything negative.  If you do not believe this, then next time listen to a politician giving a speech. 
Surround Yourself with Positive People.  Think of negativity and positivity like magnets. Negative people attract other negative people and positive people attract other positive people.  You might be thinking, well there is a problem here if positive people only like to hang out with positive people. Here is the caveat, just like saying empty positive self-statements by themselves will not change things for the better nor will just hanging out with positive folks. It’s true that positive people like to shoo away negativity, but they also enjoy sharing their positive energy.  Being around people who give good advice and provide support is important to boost positive thinking.

Mayo Clinic (5/28/2011).  Stress Management.  Retrieved on 8/18/2011 from