We’ve been told for decades that positive thinking can do wonders for our health. But now experts are starting to be able to quantify this. Recent studies have shown that staying on the sunny side of life can do everything from reduce stress to strengthen your immune system, lower your risk for hereditary-based heart disease, and even extend your lifespan. Negative thinking can do the opposite.
The perils of negative thinking
In a study published in The Lancet, a group of researchers in San Diego analyzed the deaths of 28,000 Chinese-Americans and compared them to 400,000 randomly selected, matched controls coded “white” on their death certificate. When studying the data, the team found that the Chinese-Americans died significantly earlier than normal if they had a combinational of a disease and a birth year that Chinese astrology and Chinese medicine deemed ill-fated. The researchers concluded that it wasn’t genetics, lifestyle choices, or the skill of the doctors treating the Chinese-Americans that caused their early demise; it was their mentality that their illness and Chinese astrology had cursed them. The study found that more strongly the Chinese-Americans attached to their Chinese traditions, the earlier they died. Another study showed that 70% of medical students complained of symptoms of various illnesses that they were studying. These are among the many examples that research has found of the powerful effects that negative thinking can have on our health and wellbeing.
Breaking the cycle of negative thinking
According to Dr. Patti Johnson, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, California, chronic negative thinking can catalyze an array of anxieties. “The more negative thoughts you think, the worse you will feel, and the more negative thoughts you will generate. This is a vicious cycle of negative thinking, with your brain in lock mode, stuck in a negative place,” she warns. But staying positive isn’t as easy as snapping your fingers and changing the channel.
“When you are bombarded with negative, worried, or anxious thinking, people might tell you to think positively,” says Johnson. “This implies all we need to do is to think happy thoughts. However this usually doesn’t work and even minimizes natural or genuine concerns that deserve some degree of empathy from others.”
But that doesn’t mean negative thinkers are doomed. Experts say that it is entirely possible to rewire your emotions and shift your negative mentality into a positive one.
Here are some tips on how to start viewing life with a glass half full attitude:
Challenge your negative thoughts
Johnson challenges her clients to shift their thinking from negative to deliberate thinking by engaging in the exercise: Decide if your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful by asking yourself these questions:
- Do the thoughts help me solve a specific problem?
- Do they make me feel more confident or calm?
- Do these thoughts give me peace?
- Are these thoughts benefiting in any way?
“If you decide these negative thoughts are not helpful to you, then deliberately tell yourself that you are not going to give any serious attention to these thoughts and you have no obligation to pay attention to them,” she explains. “Then redirect your focus to something else.”
This requires you to change your focus with effortful attention. For example, place your attention on an activity, engage with people around you, name 5 things that you are grateful for, or take any mindful action that takes your focus away from the negative thinking. “By doing these things, you create a new brain circuit that competes with the older one,” Johnson adds. “Each time the negative thoughts pop-up, and they will, deliberately remind yourself that there is no benefit to focusing on these thoughts and redirect your focus.”
Ask the right questions
“Your brain is extraordinary. It will answer any questions you ask it,” says Sonia Satra, certified life coach with Moticise. “So if you ask it ‘Why am I so stupid?’ then you’ll soon come up with a million reasons why. But if you shift that focus, and ask instead. ‘What am I doing right?’ ‘Where can I improve?’ ‘How can I do this better?’ – then your fabulous brain will shift gears, and start working for you,” she explains.
According to neuroscientist Richie Davidson, giving your mind a break is a powerful way to gain control over your thoughts. “Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, and resist getting drawn back into the abyss,” he explains. Try sitting still for 10 minutes and focusing on your breath. If your mind is too busy to pull this off, try a guided mindfulness meditation exercise via an app like Headspace.
Helping out others can make you feel good in return. “People who volunteer tend to have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and happiness,” says Mark Snyder, a psychologist and head of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota. According to experts, volunteering can be as easy as helping a stranger with directions or aiding your friend in carrying a heavy package. To find nonprofit-based initiatives that you can participate in near your area, check out Volunteer Match.
Eliminate negative self-talk
The age-old adage “you are your own worst critic” definitely rings true. But instead of focusing on the things that you don’t like about yourself, take a moment to consider the things that you do. And follow the Golden Rule of: don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging of yourself. It takes practice but once this is mastered, it can make a world of difference.
Turn your focus to progress, not perfection
Praise your efforts and celebrate your victories no matter how small they may be. Recognize that every little step in the right direction is moving you towards achieving a goal. If you are trying to build up your savings account, for example, take a moment to praise yourself for the actions that you have taken that have furthered that goal. Tell yourself “I’m making an effort to be more conscious about how I spend my money” and focus on that, rather than lamenting over the one time that you accidentally slipped and splurged on something that you shouldn’t have.
Shifting your mentality from a negative to positive one can take time. But the more you make yourself aware of your thoughts and actively work to change them, the closer you’ll be to reaping the benefits of optimistic thinking.