Traditionally, it’s the time of year for spring cleaning, but what if it’s not just your home that could do with a refresh this season? The spring months can also be the perfect opportunity to take stock of what’s going on in your head, clear out any negative thought patterns, and make some space for optimism. And with the ongoing coronavirus crisis and its impact on our day-to-day lives, there’s never been a better time to shift your focus and discover the power of positive thinking.
The power of positive thinking
The power of positive thinking has been well documented. Lowri Dowthwaite, senior lecturer in psychological interventions at the University of Central Lancashire, says: “Being hopeful and optimistic for the future has been associated with better health and wellbeing.
“It helps to increase psychological resilience when dealing with hardship and it has also been suggested that increased optimism boosts our immune system.”
For many of us, it can feel difficult to suddenly become the eternal optimist though. But building a more positive mindset can be done, so where do you start?
Understand the impact of negativity
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge the detrimental effects of negativity on the brain.
Niels Eék, a psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing platform Remente (remente.com), says: “That little voice inside your head is something we all have and listen to. If positive and motivating, that inner dialogue can contribute to self-love, confidence and happiness. However, if it is negative and used to reinforce limitations in our abilities, it can have serious implications for your mental wellbeing.”
He notes a 2017 study at Abilene Christian University, which “found a correlation between negative self-talk and an increase in stress levels, depression and anxiety”.
Identify your inner dialogue
While it’s unrealistic (and not necessarily healthy) to always be very positive, some small tweaks could make a big difference.
“This dialogue normally spills out in the language we use in our daily interactions as well so, if turning inwards initially feels scary, then start by exploring how you speak to those around you,” suggests Eék. “Do you use words like: I can’t, I won’t, it’s my fault, it’ll never happen to me? If so, then this is not serving you positively and you will need to start to reframe your inner narrative.”
He notes that according to Mayo Clinic, there are four main categories of negative self-talk: personalising (it’s me, not you), filtering (magnifying the negatives and ignoring the positives), catastrophising (anticipating the worst), and polarising (there’s only good or bad).
Flex the mental muscle
“Self-talk is a mental muscle,” says Eék, “meaning that, each time you allow it to tell you what it’s thinking, it is becoming stronger. If you allow your inner voice to repeatedly tell you what you, for example, do not have the capacity to do, then the negative self-talk will continue.”
He says reframing our mindsets “will create more headspace for positive thoughts. It involves changing your perspective of a certain situation to provide a more positive and meaningful outcome.”
Recognise when you’re jumping to conclusions
Dowthwaite notes that when we experience high levels of negative emotions – like anger, jealousy or fear – it’s very easy to jump to conclusions about whatever the situation is.
“When you do experience these emotions, it’s important to give yourself time and space to let everything settle. After this, you’ll be in a better position to take a step back from the situation and rationalise your thoughts,” she says.
Eék says this is a classic symptom of ‘personalisation’ self-talk. “For example, your friend hasn’t responded to your text and you start telling yourself it’s because you’ve upset them.
“The next time you start to feel that you’re to blame for something going wrong, take a deep breath and ask yourself: Is there any evidence to support your claim? What are some other realistic reasons?”
Or if you’re ‘catastrophising’ and thinking the absolute worst, he says: “Ask yourself: How likely is this to happen, and if it does, what implications will it actually have on your life, in the grand scheme of things?”
Put pen to paper
Aside from recognising and breaking down sources of negativity, it’s important to focus on joy, contentment, gratitude and excitement too, says Dowthwaite. She suggests writing down three good things – no matter how big or small – that happen each day. “Over time, your brain will learn to pay more attention to the good things that are happening in your life,” she says.
Journaling can also be a way to recognise your accomplishments, and ensure you’re not engaging in ‘filtering’ negative self-talk (where you ignore the good you’ve achieved and focus on what you haven’t).
Promise to be kinder to yourself
You may be prone to ‘polarising’ self-talk, where you see yourself as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and nowhere in-between.
For example, you decided to go stick to a healthy eating plan in lockdown but slipped up and ate lots of chocolate, and you beat yourself up about it and tell yourself that you’ll never be able to be healthy.
In this situation, Eék says to treat yourself with more kindness and patience: “If you ate unhealthily one evening, it does not mean your diet is ruined.”
Set aside time for worry
It’s often said everything feels better in the morning, so if you find yourself thinking negatively in the evening – possibly about the following day – acknowledge the thoughts but don’t let them take over your evening.
“Set aside just five minutes to worry in the evening,” says Dowthwaite. “That way, when worries pop into your head, tell yourself you will deal with them during your five minutes. The rest of the day becomes a worry-free zone.”
Know that you deserve to be happy and positive
Various theories hypothesise that many people tend to be self-destructive.
“When we feel happy or positive, we can sometimes sabotage these feelings by thinking we don’t deserve them or that they won’t last,” notes Dowthwaite.
“It’s important to change your mindset and see happiness as an experience that comes and goes. This enables us to let go of the unachievable goal of eternal happiness and lets us enjoy happiness when we experience it.”