Thoughts can mean the difference between having a good day or a bad one. Every time you have a negative, angry or sad thought, your brain releases chemicals that activate your limbic system1 and make your mind and body feel bad. And every time you have a happy, positive thought, your brain releases chemicals that make your mind and body feel good. Our thoughts affect both our physical and our mental health, as well as our attitudes, behaviors, happiness, relationships and success.
It has been said that an optimist sees a glass as half full while a pessimist sees a glass as half empty. An optimist focuses on positives, possibilities, and hopeful aspects of a situation; whereas, a pessimist has difficulty seeing possibilities, having hope, and may feel helpless. We tend to act in ways that support our thoughts, so if you think you can do something, you will probably try. If you don’t think you can do something, you will be more likely to give up and may not even try. This is referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words—causing something to happen by believing it will come true.
Research has shown that positive thinking and optimism have many health benefits. These include increased life span, decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, lower rates of depression, greater resistance to the common cold, and better coping skills during times of stress.
It is not always easy to think positive thoughts. Depression can affect how we think. In addition, some of us grew up surrounded by negative people, criticism, and learned to be critical of ourselves and/or others. The good news is—it is possible to change the way you think!
Here are some tips for positive thinking:
- Surround yourself with positive people. Remember positivity is contagious, just as negativity is! Keep a gratitude journal. Each day write down things you are thankful for. Focus on what is good in your life. Studies have shown that people who focus on the things they are grateful for are happier and healthier than those who don’t.
- Listen to uplifting music. Listening to upbeat music has been found to improve mood and boost happiness levels.
- Read positive messages. Reading books or daily readings that offer you positive messages can help boost your mood and help you to think positively in times of stress.
- Laugh. Use humor and learn to laugh at yourself. Do you remember the last time you had a good belly laugh? What about the last time you heard a child laugh? Research has shown that laughing and smiling can increase our levels of serotonin, a feel good hormone, and also increase our endorphin production, creating a natural high.
- Exercise. Exercise can raise serotonin levels, increase energy, and distract you from negative thoughts that may loop around in your mind.
- Practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of intentionally focusing on the present moment without judgment. With mindfulness meditation, we learn to increase our awareness, focus our attention, slow racing thoughts and be fully present in the moment and in our lives.
- Play. Have fun. Even adults can play. Schedule time for fun.
- Replace negative thoughts. Learn to recognize negative thoughts and practice replacing them with positive thoughts. Notice when your thoughts are negative and talk to them. When you are able to challenge and change your automatic negative thoughts, you take away their power.
Remember that changing the way you think is a process. It will not happen overnight. So don’t get discouraged or beat yourself up if you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts. Instead, be accepting of yourself and where you are at in the process. View negative thoughts as an opportunity to learn new skills. And remember, like making any change or forming any habit, improving your power of thought will take practice.
1The limbic system is the part of the brain concerned especially with emotion and motivation.
By Jennifer Hecht, LCPC, LCAC