Positive thinking: Can what you think really affect how you feel?

Three happy friends traveling together

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There may be a reason optimists are happier: research suggests that how we think affects how we feel and act.

But is the key to being happy as simple as doing some positive thinking — deciding the glass as half-full rather than half-empty? “To a degree,” says Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, UW Health psychologist. But she cautions, “It’s not always easy.”
Changing your patterns for more positive thinking

The field in psychology known as cognitive therapy, emphasizes that negative thought patterns can have a profound effect on our physical and mental well-being.

“How we perceive a situation, or even our day-to-day life, can contribute to higher stress levels and ultimately contribute to anxiety and depression.

“The average person has approximately 40,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day,” says Mirgain. “Obviously we’re not aware of every single thought. But, research suggests that many of the thoughts we think are negative, and the majority of them are repetitive.”

When we’re not paying attention to our thought patterns, it’s easy for our minds to fall into a playback loop — thinking the same thing each and every day.

But, when we start to pay attention, we can notice the quiet ways we get stuck into negative patterns, and then we can begin to reshape our thinking in more constructive ways.

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“Ask yourself, ‘What kind of thoughts do I want guiding my life,'” Mirgain suggests. “You can choose ones that support you in the direction you want to be going, not ones that keep you stuck where you’ve been.”

Mirgain’s 4 steps to help you become more aware of your thought patterns
1) Examine evidence

Mirgain uses an example most adults have experienced at some point in their lives – being stuck in traffic when you’re late for work. Chances are you feel anxious and stressed, maybe even angry.

Even if your thoughts don’t spin into worst-case scenarios, like your boss will get so angry she’ll fire you, it can set your expectation that the rest of the day won’t go well.

But remember, we don’t have to believe everything we think.

“When we pause and begin to actually listen to our internal dialogue, we can step back and not get wrapped up in irrational, self-critical or negative thoughts,” explains Mirgain. “Once we recognize that, we can actually choose how to continue.”

2) Practice disputing negative thoughts

If a friend came to you and said she was feeling discouraged, chances are, you’d offer support and encouragement. But, what do you think about when you are discouraged? Do you tend to think negatively, or are you your own cheerleader?

“Ask yourself, ‘Is this a helpful thought?’ And if not, ask what you could think that would be helpful,” advises Mirgain.

When you stay tuned to your thoughts throughout the day, you can catch yourself when you start to think negatively. Mirgain suggests having a short, positive phrase like a mantra can help.

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“Saying something like, ‘It’s going to be okay,’ ‘This too will pass,’ or ‘I’m doing the best I can,’ can help shift your thinking,” explains Mirgain. “When you know you’re going to be in a stressful situation, you can help by thinking about it in advance.”

Mirgain uses a common experience of a job interview as an example. Before the interview, you might find yourself thinking, “There must be many more qualified applications, what’s the point.”

But, when you catch yourself thinking that, stop and instead remind yourself, “I have a lot to offer and a good skill set for the position.”

And, it’s equally important to be realistic. As in the interview scenario, focus on “I’ll try my best” rather than, “I’ll definitely get the job.”

Thinking in a supportive way helps us to feel good about what we’re trying to accomplish and can create the motivation we need.

3) Bring yourself into the present moment

Despite our best efforts to try and ignore certain thoughts, or even change them, they can be “sticky” and persist. And, the more you try to change them, the more you can inadvertently make them stronger. Mirgain describes it as putting wood on a fire – the more you pay attention to the thought, or feed it, the stronger it becomes.

“When thoughts like those arise, try to bring your mind into the present moment by focusing on something in the environment, like a cup of coffee, or by looking out the window. Our mind can only handle one thought at a time, so even just taking a deep breath can interrupt and shift the focus away from the negative thoughts,” says Mirgain.

Eventually, like the fire, the thought will fade out without anything to keep it going.

4) Take action

Sometimes, the best thing we can do to interrupt negative thoughts is actually to take action and work toward a goal that has meaning for you and is something you value.

“Perhaps there’s an art class you’ve always wanted to take, or a goal you’ve wanted to attain. Those kinds of actions can keep us moving forward and actually quiet down our negative thoughts,” says Mirgain.

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She suggests that when negative thoughts persist, think about just letting them be there, like noise from a radio, and refocusing on taking action in the direction of something that is important to you. Often, a small action step can help calm the mind and connect you back to a sense of well-being.

Give it time

While Mirgain offers four tasks to try, she acknowledges it is not a simple set of tasks.

“Our thought patterns are often ingrained, and it takes a significant amount of work to retrain our brain,” she says. “Be patient and forgiving with yourself.”

If worry or anxiety is affecting your ability to perform your day-to-day activites, you may benefit from speaking to a specialist. Mirgain recommends talking with your primary care provider to determine what is appropriate for you.

Shilagh A Mirgain, PhD

Shilagh A Mirgain, PhD

Dr Mirgain Shilagh is a Health and Sport Psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Her clinical interests include individual and couples psychotherapy with patients with mood, anxiety disorders and adjustment issues, sport psychology and peak performance training, pre-surgical psychological evaluations, and individual and group treatment of patients with a variety of health problems including pain, headaches, cardiac rehabilitation, diabetes, IBS, hypertension, TMJ and insomnia.

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