Every single hour of every day, we have choices. We have choices about how we view what we are experiencing. Every choice we make is creating a habit, or a neural pathway, in our brain, that stays connected. The more we think a certain way, it becomes easier to travel down that path, because our neural synaptic connections are created and sustained by how we think. In other words, If we persistently think negatively, then we will have trouble seeing the positive, even if there is positive to be seen.
There really are real negative life circumstances that we need to allow ourselves to feel the grief, pain or heartache of. However, when under prolonged stress, the weight of our problems can take a toll on us. This skews our perspective, traumas and painful circumstances can lead to a persistently negative view on life. We perceive that life is out to get us, and people or circumstances are a threat to our well being, or we can't see the positive anymore because we have grown accustomed to a negative point of view.
Interestingly, our immune system tends to be negatively impacted by our negative thoughts and perceptions of our life circumstances. Studies show that we are more likely to get sick when we are stressed. The stress hormone cortisol is partially responsible for this. Cortisol is released when we are stressed and weighed down by life's problems. This stress increases inflammation which lowers your immune response. (Dr. Sheldon Cohen, Dr. Joseph Mercola).
Another is that negativity and chronic stress tend to narrow our focus. We lack openness, creativity and the flexibility we need to approach our daily life struggles when we are in a negative mindset. We become rigid and narrow in our thinking. This reduces the capacity to approach life’s challenges with a mental state that is broad enough to create healthy solutions and to work through the problem with resilience, creativity, and receptivity. In other words, emotions impact cognition (Taken from Positive Psychology 1, Continuing Ed course by Dr. Neil Eddington).
Without spending too much time focusing on the negative aspects of stress on the body and mind, let’s talk about how positive emotions help you. Research has also demonstrated that positive emotions result in a stronger sense of psychological well-being (Park, Peterson, and Seligman 2004). The same study states that this well being predicts a greater sense of love, gratitude, hope, curiosity and life-satisfaction. For children, the sense of hope is added, as a positive component, when they perceive that their parents are happy (Taken from Positive Psychology 1, Continuing Ed course by Dr. Neil Eddington).
One of the ways to actively fight against negative thinking is to change your internal dialogue. The way you talk to yourself matters. It is the running dialogue in your head that responds to your life experiences. It can be wired for negativity or for gratitude. We can choose to focus on only the negative or we can also look for the positive.
We often aren’t tuned into our own thoughts, so the first step is to ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now?” Ask yourself how you see the situation, take note of your perceptions rather than just react to life as it is happening. Stop and reflect for a moment, be aware of how you are approaching the situation and then consider options. Take charge of how you choose to respond.
Examples of gratitude mind changes:
“I hate this blue carpet, I wish I could afford to change it.”
“I am thankful that I have carpet, many people around the world have dirt floors.”
“I am furious that my son’s team didn’t win, the coach should have coached better!”
“We have had many good games this season. He is learning to play, and learning good sportsmanship.”
“Why does everybody else seem to have it together, and I am always messing things up.”
“Everybody makes mistakes sometimes, even people who look good on the outside. I can recover from this.”
You can begin to see how in each situation there are a range of perspectives that you can choose to embrace. The more we think something, be it negative or positive, the more we are convinced of its perceived, “truth.” We may fail to see that there is another way to look at the same situation. We can choose to develop a perspective that is more emotionally supportive, and less negative.
This intentional shift helps us access, and establish, resilience within us to move forward. When we are not bogged down by negativity we can see better, solutions become clearer. Positivity is a daily choice. One can hear about my friends who go on Caribbean vacations and think, “I wish I could go on a vacation, this sucks, life isn’t fair!” Or, could think, “I hope they have fun and stay safe.” It is a discipline that requires effort. The benefits are a stronger immune system, and better energy and creativity to face your challenges and work toward your personal goals.
Other tips to develop positivity:
Start a gratitude journal- Take time every day to write down or inventory in your thoughts, the things you are grateful for. This can be anything that you can think of from, I am thankful that I have running water and can shower every day to I am thankful that I am employed. Be thankful for your car even if it is an old car that needs to be replaced, be thankful for your kids even if they are acting out sometimes, be thankful for your job even if your boss is temperamental, be thankful for your health even if you sometimes feel tired.
Change your negative thoughts- As seen above, catch your negative internal dialogue and intentionally change it. Don’t change it from a stance of caring too much to caring too little. Saying to yourself, “Whatever, I don’t care!” or "Everything is wonderful!" doesn’t count. Find a phrase that still validates how you feel, but is more positive in nature, such as, “I am disappointed but it’s okay, tomorrow is a new day, I will get through this.” You can acknowledge the pain or disappointment but don't dwell on it exclusively.
Go on a Gratitude Walk- Take a 30 minute walk and brainstorm all of the many things you can think of to be thankful for. Take time to give thanks for each of those things as they come to mind. Be thankful for your car, the tires on your car, the water in your home, the groceries in your fridge etc...
Exercise regularly- Exercise is known to increase a sense of well being dramatically. It can be an outlet to purge negative emotion, to feel stronger and to increase serotonin (a neurotransmitter associated with positive mood).
Be mindful- Mindfulness has a lot to do with living in the present. Try not to dwell on the past or fret about the future. Enjoy the now, and live in the present tense. Use your senses such as taste, smell, sight, hearing or feeling to help bring you back into the present tense. Some have said worry (about the future) is like sitting in a rocking chair, it keeps you stuck in repetitive thoughts while going nowhere. Ask yourself, "What do I need to do next?" and then focus on that.
Be Creative- You don’t have to be a master crafter to be creative. Color in a coloring book, try something new, cook a new dish, or attend a painting or pottery class. Creativity opens up the mind to relax and stop fretting over fears. It gives your worries a break while you complete the creative task. It helps to turn off the negative thoughts for a few minutes. If you throw away your project when you are done, that’s fine. The main point is to help you rest from the anxiety on your mind while your mind uses it's creative side.
Nurture friendships- Being connected to friends has a positive impact on mood. This means getting together versus texting or reading social media updates. Being with another person increases oxytocin which is a neurotransmitter that improves a sense of peace and well being. Isolation can breed negative thinking, while some studies show that interaction with people increases happiness.
Serve others- It can be very personally satisfying to do a service project. Help the homeless by serving food in a food kitchen, volunteer where you see a need, help out at an organization or church. This gets us out of our self-focus to focus on others that can break the repetitive thinking about personal problems.
"Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever." Psalm 106:1
"Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things." Philippians 4:8
Best wishes as you move forward in your positive perspectives. If you are having trouble seek out a good counselor that can help you. Sometimes we need support to get started.