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There is an epidemic of stress, depression, and anxiety. Despite the fact that people are talking more openly about their mental health, removing stigma does not seem to have affected the actual levels of stress being experienced. Your newsfeed and the news itself are filled with articles telling you to just be positive. The thing about positive thinking is that you can't pretend a bad situation away just by having warm and fuzzy thoughts.
Positive thinking was first made famous by writer Norman Vincent Peale in his book The Power of Positive Thinking where he wrote: “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships and tragedies of the world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.” This might sound easier said than done yet there is a body of science and research in the field of positive psychology that shows putting attention to specific ways of thinking and reacting can help you to feel less stressed. Here are a few ways to use your thoughts to benefit your well-being and reduce stress.
First let's talk about what stress is and what stress isn't. Stress is the negative physiological process that happens when something gets between you and something that you want—it can be good or bad. Humans are designed to use stress to keep you alert and motivated. Stress is simply a cascade of hormones released to prime humans for performance. Stress can tip from useful to negative when there is continuous stress without relaxation or relief. Stress presents as emotional distress, or through physical stressors like headache, jaw pain, gut or bowel problems, sweaty palms, migraines, high blood pressure, or chest pain.
Before you begin using positive thoughts, putting a small space between you and the stressors of the situation with your breath can prime you for success. To paraphrase Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, there is a space between stimulus and response, and your ownership of the experience happens in that space. When you practice breathing as a stress response, you are able to find just a little more time to hang out in that space. That space allows you to witness your mental thought process rather than being dragged down by it. (This has also been referred to as being aware of your awareness by Dan Harris of the 10% Happier podcast.) After you have that space, it's time to figure out what to do in order to use your thinking process to more effectively help you cope with stress and obtain optimal health and well-being.
Let’s talk about what positive thinking is and what it is not.
Think about how to reduce and manage stress in your life by thinking about specific stressful situations. Reframing is a coping mechanism that involves a conscious focus on the benefits of a situation. Think of reframing as telling your story so that you are the hero. Sometimes this requires space, especially when the situation is trying or has strong emotions attached to it. Often when you have space, you have a freedom to tell your story a different way.
An example is my morning commute. Many days one of my four children will have us running a little late. I'm someone who prides myself on being on time and this felt stressful to me. Instead of continuing to think negative thoughts of our running behind, I decided to tell myself a story. In my story, the universe was protecting me from the car accident I would have had if I had left when I wanted to leave. Is this true? Possibly. I actually don't know what would have happened if we had left on time but if it can help me to feel a little less stressed about my lateness, then the reframe was successful stress relief.
I learned about posting at the Option Institute in Sheffield, Massachusetts. A sign out front boasts A Place for Miracles and for me, the ways I learned to shift my mindset were miraculous. We were instructed to use the posting process for stress management any time a negative feeling or thought occurred to us. You're not always available to reflect on your thought process when a negative, stressful, or uncomfortable thought arises but by making a post, a small notation in a notebook or your smartphone, you can go back either later in the evening or first thing in the morning when you're feeling calm and relaxed and take a deeper look at why you were feeling stressed.
Use a series of questions such as:
These posts and reflections can lead you to understand why you choose the thoughts you choose and this, in turn, allows you to replace these thoughts (assuming they are no longer serving you). Often a half-full thought replaces a half-empty one.
Spending time being mindful is another way to help boost your positive thinking. People who spend time in meditation gain both the ability to focus and the ability to start again, based on a practice of focusing on either the breath or a mantra, and starting again whenever there are distractions of thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Whenever I see the Dalai Lama smiling or laughing, I am reminded that a mind that has spent time in meditation is primed for positivity.
Carol Dweck has become famous for her research on mindsets. She identified two types of mindsets—fixed and growth. With a fixed mindset, you are born with a certain talent or intelligence and it isn’t something that can be changed. With a growth mindset, on the other hand, you can become better with practice regardless of natural ability or IQ.
Well-being expert Ash Buchanan has added benefit mindset to this mix. A benefit mindset builds on a growth mindset, where you not only seek to fulfil your potential, but choose to do it in a way that serves the well-being of all. When you choose to develop a growth or benefit mindset, positive thinking is almost a by-product. You stop seeing limited potential based on your genetics and instead become open to the potential of limitless possibility. When this is done for the greater good, you have some accountability to those who will benefit, which helps you to stay positive.
A great place to plant the seeds of positive thinking is with self-compassion. When you start taking moments to practice self-care, you reduce your stress levels according to self-compassion (in teens) researcher Karen Bluth, who uses touch—such as placing hands over your heart, gently stroking your own cheek, or hugging yourself—to elicit hormones like oxytocin that support positive emotions.
Consider using a quote to start each day off with a positive attitude. A daily dose of happiness can set the tone for positive thinking. At the end of the day, try a moment of gratitude to seal the positivity. According to Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychologist and author of Positivity: “The multitude of studies that I and other scientists have conducted on positivity is destined to remain merely interesting dinner conversation until you deepen your self-study. You need to pivot away from what’s worked for others and toward what works for you. Have your own ‘Eureka!’ moments. Discover for yourself what rouses genuine and heartfelt positivity.”
These ways to manage stress can be applied regularly to maintain a good attitude and keep you from reaching a crisis point in your mental health. Remember, you don’t have to be joyful or boisterous to be positive. Sometimes positivity feels like serenity or hope or awe, and sometimes it feels like connection and silliness and confidence. Don’t compare your positive attitude to anyone else’s—trust that with careful and consistent effort your positive thinking will reduce your stress and elevate your mood.
Learn a natural, effortless style of meditation that helps invite renewal and freshness into every day with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.