A Potential Flaw in Positive Thinking Psychology

Dare 2 Hope_thoughts

Photo Credit: ileanaandrei.ro

There’s a lot of talk these days about positive thinking and how important it is to change your thinking to improve your health and happiness. And while I won’t argue that our mindset affects our feelings and behavior (because I believe it absolutely does), I am concerned that we can put too much emphasis on thinking. That’s a big statement for a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) therapist to make! But here’s the balance that I would like to bring to the discussion: Though highly influential, thoughts are not an all-powerful force in our lives.

There are potential drawbacks to believing that everything we think affects our behavior. So even while we acknowledge the significance of our thoughts and strive to have healthier, more constructive thinking patterns, let’s also recognize some limitations of our thoughts. For example, thoughts…

  • do not always reflect what we really believe, feel or want.
  • do not always mean we will act on whatever that thought is.
  • do not always reflect reality.

Let’s take a closer look at why each of these points is relevant.

#1. Thoughts do not always reflect what we really believe, feel or want. We all have had bizarre, maybe even dark thoughts that pop into our heads at times—that is a normal part of being human. It does not mean you are “crazy” or a bad person. Some people struggle with these types of thoughts more than others, particularly people with issues like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or postpartum depression. On the extreme end, I’ve had clients who had intrusive thoughts about things like stabbing their spouses or molesting their child (even though they had no reason or desire to do such things), and they worried it meant there was something evil inside of them. Being bothered by your thoughts is a sign that they don’t reflect your wants or values. In cases like these that go beyond the “normal” occasional bizarre thoughts we all have, there are often biological causes for these thoughts. There is sometimes trauma in that person’s past that can be influencing these thoughts.

#2. Thoughts do not always mean we will act on whatever that thought is. Thoughts do not automatically manifest into behavior. None of my clients who had bizarre, or even violent, intrusive thoughts ever acted on them because that is not who they were.

Now, sometimes our thoughts do line up with our feelings and that makes it more likely we will act on them, but it doesn’t mean we have to. This is key for my clients in eating disorder recovery, who might have obsessive thoughts about not eating or about thinking they are fat (and also feeling fat). Though it can be incredibly difficult, they can choose not to act on those thoughts. In her book, Life without Ed, Jenni Shaefer describes it as “disobeying” the eating disorder. We can have thoughts and feelings about harming ourselves and decide to call a friend instead. A tape can play in our head about how that big presentation at work will be a flop, but then it turns out we nail it.

#3. Thoughts do not always reflect reality. Thoughts, like feelings, are not facts. Research confirms that much of what we worry about doesn’t even happen.¹ And just because we think something doesn’t make it true. We can think we’re ugly and actually be attractive. We can think we’re an idiot and be very intelligent. We can think we are boring and socially awkward while in reality, people find us engaging and pleasant to be around. The stories we tell ourselves are just that: stories. And sometimes stories are only partially true or sometimes they are completely false.

It is really, really good news that while we work on changing detrimental thoughts, we are not completely at their mercy until they change or go away. We can still choose to ignore or to act opposite of our thoughts when they aren’t healthy. Remember friends, we are not just thoughts… we also have a will and a conscience and many other elements that make up who we are and drive what we do.

Much love,
Cherie Signature

¹References: “85 Percent of What We Worry About Never Happens” By Don Joseph Goewey (www.huffingtonpost.com/don-joseph-goewey-/85-of-what-we-worry-about_b_8028368.html)

About Cherie Miller @ Dare 2 Hope
Cherie Miller, MS, LPC opened Dare 2 Hope Counseling to help clients all over the country get free from their food, weight, and self-confidence struggles. Her specialty is eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia and other unhealthy eating patterns. Contact her here.

4 Tips for Dealing with Overwhelming Anxiety

Dealing with Anxiety

If you struggle with anxiety, you’re certainly not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in our country, affecting an estimated 40 million adults in the U.S. (source: National Institute of Mental Health). Given that the NIMH also says that average onset is age 11, you might have struggled with anxiety for a long time. Maybe you have even started to believe that being a “worry wart” is just the way you are. While there’s some truth to that, there are lots of strategies for managing anxiety so that it doesn’t take a toll on your emotional and physical well-being (because yes, anxiety has a significant impact on your body!). Whether it’s generalized anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, or some other form of anxiety, here are 4 tips to help manage those emotions.

#1. Do some breathing exercises. Our bodies and minds (i.e., emotions) are highly interrelated and we can use that to our advantage. I’m not getting all new-agey on you; there is real science behind why deep breathing works. A quick explanation is that anxiety puts your body in fight-or-flight mode (remember that fun little phrase from high school biology?), and flooding your brain with oxygen basically tells it that everything is fine so that your sympathetic nervous system can calm back down.

#2. Stop the stinkin’ thinkin’. Though not always, our emotions are often triggered by our thoughts. Do you convince yourself that something is a catastrophe when it really isn’t? Do you worry about all the possible outcomes of a situation—usually all the negative ways something could turn out? Do you assume people are judging you unfavorably? Do you tell yourself you just won’t be able to handle if ____ (fill in the blank)? All of these are examples of what we call cognitive distortions because they are irrational thoughts that inevitably lead to anxiety and depression. Practicing more positive, realistic thinking can lead to healthier, more positive emotions.

#3. Get distracted. Ruminating—thinking obsessively about something—is rarely productive. It’s not the same as problem-solving and just ends up wasting a lot of time and energy. One of the best ways to break out of that circling-the-drain trap is to simply do something else, preferably something you enjoy! Get outside to soak up nature for a bit or call a friend. Do something kind for someone else. Engage in your favorite hobby. Wrap up in a soft blanket and sip your favorite drink. Whatever is going to soothe your spirit and refocus your mind in that moment, try that.

#4. If all else fails, try just accepting it. Accepting the anxiety sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? But in certain circumstances, accepting rather than fighting something is a better route because the process of fighting can sometimes give that thing more power and control over you. It’s like being in quicksand… the more you struggle against it, the faster and deeper you sink. Anxiety is usually about self-protection, so acknowledge that and thank your anxiety for what it’s trying to do to help. Try saying something like this to yourself: “I actually have the skills I need to handle whatever might happen so I don’t need to focus on the anxiety so much anymore. It’s still there and that’s fine, but I’m moving on to thinking about and doing other things.” And then do!

There are other tips I can give about dealing with anxiety and I could even expand on some of these, but this is probably enough for today. If you have questions, though, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Be well,
Cherie_signature

Cherie Miller, MS is owner of Dare 2 Hope Coaching and a virtual Health and Wellness Life Coach who helps clients all over the country improve their lives. Her specialty is helping people get free from their food, weight, and self-confidence struggles. Contact her here.