We’ve always been told that physical exercise is critical to our health. I mean we had an entire class dedicated to it for our entire childhoods. What if we had a class dedicated to our mental health- to learn and practice the healthiest ways of thinking? Now more than ever we are noticing the importance of mental health, and it starts with our thoughts.
Our thoughts affect mood, job/ school performance, relationships, and every other aspect of life. Negative thinking is inevitable and something everyone is guilty of doing occasionally. At times it seems like constant work to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, especially when our outside world is feeling chaotic and stressful. The good news is that with practice we can rewire our brains to think more positively with less and less effort over time.
Cognitive Behavioral Theory supports the idea that our thoughts affect our feelings, which affect our behavior. An ingrained negative thought might cause feelings of anxiety or depression, which can lead to isolation, lack of motivation, and irritability. By consistently practicing helpful thinking styles, we can reduce depressive, anxious feelings and improve quality of life. Ready for the best part? These positive thinking strategies are intrinsic; therefore, without changing the environmental factors that impact our mood, we can see change.
1. Identify the negative or unhelpful thinking patterns. The following are a few of the most common:
1. Emotional Reasoning – Assuming that because you feel a certain way, that your thoughts at that moment are true. “I’m embarrassed, so I must be an idiot.”
2. Jumping to Conclusions – Predicting the future or assuming that we know what others are thinking.
3. All or nothing thinking – “If I’m not the perfect mother, student, employee, I’m not good enough or I’m failing”
4. Mental Filter – Only focusing on the negative things that have or are currently occurring. Disqualifying or filtering the positive aspects of life.
5. Overgeneralizing – Applying our thoughts and feelings about a single event to our entire being or life. “Nothing good ever happens to me.”
This step might seem easy; however, our style of thinking is habitual, and breaking this habit will take practice and time. After identifying the problematic thinking, one can begin to challenge the negative thinking and replace it with more helpful thoughts.
2. Strategies to challenge unhelpful thinking:
- Log your thoughts when you find yourself in a negative mood. We typically recognize a negative feeling prior to a negative thought. Logging the negative thought will not only get it off your mind and onto paper, but also the visual of that thought will help in identifying the type. Once written down, it gives us the time to challenge the efficacy of this thought in our functioning.
- Is this thought set in the future or past? Anxious thoughts are set in the future, where depressive ones are set in the past. Staying in the present is imperative for accepting what we can change right now and letting go of what we cannot.
- Gratitude Journal – To assist in building a positive thinking habit, a daily log of positive events, social-emotional supports, and areas of gratitude can be helpful.
- Check the facts – Ask yourself, “What is the evidence behind this thought?” When experiencing a strong emotion, we begin to use the emotional part of our brain. Our emotional self makes logical thinking difficult, and our behavior tends to mock the intensity of our emotion. Incorporating our rational, wise self by checking the facts helps accomplish balance.
One of the few things we can gain control of in our life is our type of thinking. By first identifying unhelpful thinking, we can take the first step in acknowledging the problem that is affecting mood. Once the habit has been built of acknowledging unhelpful thoughts, strategies to challenge these thoughts will assist in improving mood and functioning. It takes time to build a habit and learn a new skill, so patience and emotional support will be imperative throughout this journey.
Written by Kristin Tribbett, LCSW, BCN