anxietyHow to Change Negative Thinking to Positive Thinking

Why replace negative thinking?
When negative or fearful thoughts become a part of everyday life, we see some deleterious effects psychologically and physiologically. Everyone suffers from incessant negative thoughts at some period in their lives, hopefully for a short period of time before a positive response or resolution alleviates the negative effects.  Real or perceived issues have identical physiological responses.   One’s thoughts can lead to an increase in heart and respiration rate, initiate nausea, cause profuse sweating, trembling, tingling or numbness in the extremities.  Chronic worry may translate into a stress disorder, and is physically injurious to all of the bodily systems; in particular, the immune, endocrine, digestive, cardiovascular and the reproductive systems.

Conversely, positive thoughts initiate positive emotions; they bring about feelings of contentment, empathy, and a sense of well-being and happiness.  Positive emotions also initiate healthy physiological responses. One of the most commonly researched responses is the increase in immune response.1  Positive attitudes build enduring personal resources, leading to better stress resistance and reduced recovery time after a negative incident.2  Numerous studies show that happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health.3

In short, thoughts beget appropriate bodily responses — negative thoughts have negative effects, and positive thoughts have positive effects on the mind/body/spirit.  So, the real question is “why not replace negative thinking?”

How do we change our negative thinking to positive?   To tell someone to think good thoughts seems useless, and potentially annoying if the recipient of the advice is under emotional strain or facing a serious health issue.  Finding practical methods to engage positive thinking has been one of the major aims of Mind-Body medicine.  In future newsletters/blog posts, I will write about some of the more spiritual methods which help reduce negative thinking over time, but to get the ball rolling, here are the four most useful techniques that I have found to be useful for people looking to change their thought patterns:

1)     Initiate the relaxation response as often as possible throughout the day and night.  Learn to control your inner peace by “short circuiting” a sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response and initiate the relaxation response in its place.

2)     Journaling or speaking to a loved one or mental health professional about the fears and negative thoughts.  Acknowledge the fears and thoughts, put them into words, then create a plan for moving beyond the pain and fear.  Connecting with others, and feeling supported is key to a sense of well-being.

3)     Creating “replacement” thoughts when negative thinking creeps into our minds.
A replacement thought is a thought that is positive and in the present tense. For example, if bothered by fear of illness, replace the negative thinking with “I am healthy and I am strong.”  One of the best techniques to keep negative thinking at bay, or to lessen the negative effects it has on the body, is to regularly use an effective “thought replacement” repetitiously stated out loud (if in private), or silently (if in public).

Many of the fears and negative thoughts that may seem to be a result of a present set of circumstances actually may be due to core beliefs and unresolved issues that reside in the unconscious part of our brain.  We see many examples of people facing adversity with grace, and watch as they rise above the problem seemingly unscathed. On the other hand, we see others face lesser challenges and succumb to the fear and negativity by unraveling emotionally and physically.   The unconscious part of our brain is our “programming” and our responses to stressors run through that program without our awareness.  We can rewrite our program by using rote learning techniques.  Repetition is how the unconscious part of the brain works, regardless of how much the conscious part of the brain rejects the initial positive statements.  Once we instill a sense of acceptance, self-regulation, self-control and resilience, positive thinking is easier in the face of the difficulties of life.

An added bonus is making the practitioner more stress-resistant to future events.  Positive thinking, laughter, empathy and compassion all produce “happy” brain chemicals which have the obvious subjective effect of making one feel good, but also aids in balancing hormones, boosts the immune system, promotes digestion, reduces blood pressure, and gives the overall feeling of well-being.   Transforming negative thoughts into positive, over time, creates an internal balance that reduces the effects of stress on the body.

Herbert TBCohen S;  Stress and immunity in humans: a meta-analytic review.Psychosom Med. 1993 Jul-Aug;55(4):364-79.

2 Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-being. Prevention & Treatment, Vol 3(1), Mar 2000
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3 Lyubomirsky, Sonja; King, Laura; Diener, Ed.  Psychological Bulletin, Vol 131(6), Nov 2005, 803-855.
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