I want you to try something for me. Are you ready? First, look at the picture of the polar bear on this page. Do you see it? Now, for the next 30 seconds I want you to think about anything but that polar bear. Got it? You can think about anything else, just don’t think about the polar bear. Ready, go!
How did that work out for you? My guess is that once the image of a polar bear was in your mind it was hard to get it out for those thirty seconds. Was that your experience? Isn’t it ironic how the more we try to not think of something the more it comes to mind? It seems like a simple task to not think about something so specific for such a short amount of time, but it’s not as easy as you’d think! During that exercise it can feel very frustrating that we can’t seem to gain control of our thoughts and think about something, anything but that polar bear! Oftentimes the same process unfolds when we try to get rid of even bigger, often negative, thoughts. We try desperately to think about anything else besides those negative thoughts, yet they can harass us with frustrating consistency day in and day out. Maybe it is negative self-talk about your appearance or perhaps it’s a little voice telling you that you’re a failure. Regardless of the script, much like that pesky polar bear, those thoughts don’t simply disappear when we try to ignore them.
One of the downfalls of trying to just ignore negative thoughts is that we focus all of our attention on what we don’t want to think about instead of what we do want to think about. To eliminate a thought or behavior leaves room for that space to be filled with something else, so the trick becomes finding positive thoughts to replace the negative thoughts that often seem to fight to take their place again. Positive thinking is easier said than done, but it’s a practice with life-long benefits. According to an article published by the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking can increase your life span, lower depression and anxiety, create a greater resistance to the common cold, establish better coping skills in times of stress, and even slightly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
So how does somebody think positively? Having positive thinking patterns doesn’t mean that you paste a smile on your face and ignore the inevitably bad days that come your way. Instead, positive thinking means that you find better, more productive ways to relate to negative situations. Practicing positive thinking patterns takes intentional effort to relate to your surroundings in a positive way, it doesn’t just happen on its own.
Try this exercise for the next week. First, identify a reoccurring negative thought (maybe start with something small). Got it? Then, create a positive thought that you could replace it with. Each time over the next week that your negative thought comes to mind, try replacing it with the positive one and see what happens. This exercise will give you a taste of what it’s like to be intentionally positive and maybe will start to replace some negative thought patterns.
Sometimes our negative thoughts can have such deep roots that they require further exploration and healing before they can be effectively replaced. If you think this might be the case for you, counseling is a wonderful tool to explore these thoughts and move toward healing and more positive thought processes.