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Positive Thinking and Stress

What value does positive thinking have in stress management?

In discussing job-related stress, the keys to stress were identified as high expectations and a sense that little could be done to effect change to achieve these expectations. The contrast to these feelings of hopelessness are positive thoughts.

What is recommended is not groundless optimism and “rose colored glasses”, but a specific mental pattern to overcome a typically distorted thought pattern when people feel anxious or depressed. The “official” term for this technique is “cognitive therapy,” a powerful, but deceptively simple way of changing the way we think and breaking bad patterns of thought, like:

All or nothing thinking
If everything isn’t right, it is completely wrong.
Labeling
It isn’t that we made a mistake, it is that we are a failure.
Overgeneralization
Like labeling, specific events are extrapolated across time with phrases like “always” and “never.”
Mental filtering
Complicated situations will have both positive and negative elements, but twisted filtering focuses on only the negative.
Discounting the positive
Similar to filtering, these thoughts discredit good elements with phrases like “Anyone could have done that” or “That wasn’t good enough.”
Jumping to conclusions
Without evidence, our thoughts assume the worst that could happen in a situation.
Magnification
Minor problems, shortcomings and annoyances become exaggerated into huge issues.
Emotional Reasoning
Emotions are mistaken for rational thought – if it feels bad, it must actually be bad.
”Should” and “Shouldn’t” statements
This thought process is unable to let go of issues from the past, constantly revisiting what should have been done – also marked by words like “must”, “ought to”, and “have to”.
Personalizing the blame
Something that goes wrong can’t just have happened; it must be your fault.

The key to cognitive thinking is to change from the “twisted” thinking processes. When we experience an event, how we feel about the event is based on our beliefs about the event, exampled in the list of unhealthy beliefs above. The key to changing our emotional response and manage our stress is to examine and change these interpreting beliefs. Some of the ways to reinterpret our beliefs include the techniques below:

What would you say to a friend?
Do you treat yourself more harshly than you would a friend?
Examine the evidence.
Don’t allow “blanket” statements to continue without looking for facts to challenge those statements. It only takes one exception to disprove an “always”…
Experiment.
Before jumping to a conclusion, compare this situation to another situation, and examine your beliefs and the results from that situation.
Look for partial successes.
Life is rarely completely good or completely bad, so while anxiety causes us to hone in on the partial failures, we need to also consider the partial successes.
Take a survey.
Remember that under stress and anxiety, we will not think clearly, so call other people, talk through the event, and listen to what they have to say.
Define your terms.
Before you use the term “failure” or “worthless”, think of what these terms mean, and think through whether those definitions fit.
Solve the problem.
Focus your energy on the present and addressing that situation, rather than dredging up the past.

The specific steps to applying cognitive thinking are:

Step 1. Write everything down.
The act of writing automatically puts some distance between you and your negative thoughts and provides perspective.
Step 2. Identify the upsetting event.
What is it about the situation that really bothers you, and why? It often isn’t what we think it is at first.
Step 3. Identify your negative emotions.
There may be several – worry, annoyance, fear, depression.
Step 4. Identify the negative thoughts that accompany your negative emotions.
Verbalize the negative emotions – “I’m depressed that I can’t resolve this situation.”
Step 5. Identify distortions and substitute rational responses.
This is where the techniques above can be helpful – “I can get help to resolve this situation; I don’t have to do it myself.”
Step 6. Reconsider your upset.
After substituting rational responses to the emotional responses, revisit your emotions and confirm that you are now dealing with the situation and have the stress under control.
Step 7. Plan corrective action.
Don’t stop at getting by the situation – resolve it and permanently eliminate it.

References:
”Do-It-Yourself Cognitive Therapy” article from the defunct Alzheimers.com web site
Stress Busters from Stress Relief Health Enterprises

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