Sunday, June 3, 2012

Overcoming Negative Thinking

Remember the Debbie Downer character from Saturday Night Live skits? Sometimes people make the bad habit of looking at the worst case scenario in every situation. It's no fun to live that way, and it's miserable for other people to live with it, too.

Negative thinking might be a habit you picked up in your family. You may want to edit that inheritance right out of your life script. Keep the good things you got from your family, but surrender this unfortunate pattern. Thinking negatively tends to make you feel worse, and make you more likely to suffer with depression or anxiety. Using cognitive therapy techniques, developed by Aaron Beck, MD and David Burns, MD, you can free yourself from it. A good therapist can help you learn to weed out your negative thoughts in a few sessions. You are likely to feel much better.

Cognitive therapy is based on some simple concepts. Everyday, we get up and we experience events: negative, positive, and neutral. We have feelings about the events that trigger our actions in response. Cognitive therapy helps illuminate an often hidden step between the events in our lives and the feelings we experience: that important filter in between is our thoughts.

There are about 12 types of cognitive distortions that Burns identified in his classic book, Feeling Good. These include emotional reasoning (because I feel it it must be true), black and white thinking, fortune telling error (I see the future and it's terrible), mind-reading error (I know what other people are thinking and it's bad), and personalization error (I am the cause of everything bad). There are other distortions as well. Unless you train yourself to identify your distorted thoughts, you live as if that negative twist is reality. It's usually not.

There are several quick re-frames I use with my patients to help them shift out of negative thinking. One is considering an alternative view----any alternative view. Another is to consider the worst that can happen in a situation, the best that can happen, and what is most likely to happen. The third option is probably somewhere in the middle. So cognitive thinking isn't just looking on the bright side. It simply removes the negative predictions and opens you up to real experiences, not movies in your head.

You can also refocus by considering what action can you take to positively impact a difficult situation. Positive, constructive action is almost always better than obsessing or dwelling on the negative. It also puts you in a more active, healthy role, instead of the passive victim. This is likely to reduce your sense of powerlessness and  reduce symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

People who develop the power to shift out of negative thinking are happier. Abraham Lincoln had a point when he said that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Developing your self-discipline to not let your mind hop on a negative train takes practice and willpower, just like working out at the gym takes more effort than stopping by the doughnut shop.

One of my favorite Dr. Phil lines is,"How much fun are you to live with?" When you take responsibility for being a positive person, partner, and parent, you will really improve the lives of everyone around you. Using cognitive techniques can effectively help you weed out the gloom and doom, and you will enjoy your life and everyone around you so much more. You deserve it, and so does everyone else whose life touches yours.

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