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At one time or another, we’ve probably all heard the expression “think positive.” But as familiar as this advice is, many of us don’t understand how to think positive or why it’s important. We understand the concept from watching coaches and cheerleaders encourage a sports team, but we may not realize we should be our own coach and cheerleader in life. Aside from the daily motivation it can bring, positive thinking has been shown to have many health benefits. It may help you1:
- Lower stress
- Live longer
- Combat depression
- Gain better resistance to the common cold
- Reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease
Learning to think positive takes time, work and practice. But the good news is, most anyone can do it. In fact, research shows that even small children can learn to change negative self-talk into positive self-talk.2 Here are some steps to get yourself on the road to thinking positive.
Identify negative thoughts
Think about it: That voice inside your head (we all have one) has your attention 24/7. Can you say that about any other voice in your life? Now think about the power and influence your own voice has to set the tone for your mood and disposition every day. So the first step toward positive thinking is to identify your negative self-talk so you can turn it around into something positive. Negative thinking usually falls into the following categories3:
- Personalizing: Blaming yourself first
- Magnifying: Focusing on the negative, ignoring the positive
- Catastrophizing: Always expecting the worst-case scenario
- Polarizing: Seeing everything as extreme black or white, good or bad
Replace negative with positive
Simply being aware of your negative thoughts and making a point to correct them is the first step in learning how to think positive. Here are some examples of how to correct the main categories of negative thinking:
How do I combat personalizing thoughts?
Don’t take it personally.
A big part of positive thinking is being the first one to give yourself a break. While we all have to learn to take responsibility for our actions, blaming yourself for everything is never helpful. So the next time you “beat yourself up” by thinking it’s all your fault, stop and try to be more realistic about the situation. Remember that you’re only human, and there’s not a whole lot you can control. Everything that doesn’t go right can’t possibly be your fault, so remember to tell yourself that when something goes wrong.
How do I combat magnifying thoughts?
Think about the part of the glass that’s half full.
How you look at things is very important. When you find yourself focusing on the negative, stop and find something to be grateful about. Start with “At least I have…” or “It’s not so bad, I can still…” This kind of talk can go a long way toward coaching yourself into a more positive state of mind to deal with whatever is happening. It can also help you move on from whatever negative situation you’re stuck on.
How do I combat catastrophizing thoughts?
Don’t jump to negative conclusions.
When something goes wrong you may say to yourself something along the lines of “I’m having a bad day.” But when you stop and think about it, there’s no point in painting an entire day with a negative thought. That will only serve to zap your motivation and dampen your mood. Instead, try “Oh, well, the rest of the day is bound to get better.” This simple positive spin can be a powerful way to quickly improve your outlook and regain the positive energy you need to take on your next challenge.
How do I combat polarizing thoughts?
Forgo the black and white to embrace the gray.
All or nothing thinking is common among people suffering from anxiety and depression. If you find yourself seeing life’s events and experiences as all good or all bad, that won’t give you much wiggle room for positive thinking. After all, how can you feel positive about anything when you’ve already labeled yourself a loser? So if you find yourself thinking about things as black or white, take the time to find some gray. If you’re having trouble and can only see one side of the situation, it’s always helpful to seek the advice of family and friends who may be able to give you another, more objective point of view.
Memorize positive words
Research has shown that simply memorizing positive words can help with positive thinking. It sounds so simple, but it can actually work. The idea is that positive words will lead to positive thoughts, and you need to keep them top-of-mind so they’re right there when you need them. Try googling “positive words” for inspiration or creating flashcards with positive words to memorize. These exercises are said to help train your brain to more easily think positively.
Don’t get too positive — keep it real
Although positive thinking has many benefits, taking it to an extreme would be downright delusional. In order to succeed and progress, one must recognize negative situations in order to feel the urgency and drive to do something about them. In fact, some research shows that if you really want to achieve something, you may be better off thinking you will fail at it. That’s because sitting back and assuming you’ll succeed is not as motivating as self-doubt, which can actually push you to work harder to reach your goals. So while positive thinking should be an important part of your life, it should always be tempered with a reality check and realistic expectations.
1 “Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress,” Mayo Clinic Staff, 3/31/17. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950
2 “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Esther Entin, 1/19/12. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/01/the-power-of-positive-thinking/251500/
3 “Positive Self-Talk: How Talking to Yourself Is a Good Thing,” healthline.com. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/positive-self-talk - identify-the-negative
4 “How to Overcome All-Or-Nothing Thinking,” Katharina Star, PhD, 10/31/18. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/all-or-nothing-thinking-2584173
5 “Think Positive: 11 Ways to Boost Positive Thinking,” Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., 3/6/18. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/201803/think-positive-11-ways-boost-positive-thinking
6 “Think Positive: 16 Simple Ways to Start Thinking Positive in 2019,” Berkeley well-being institute. Retrieved from https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/think-positive-16-ways-positive-thinking.html
7 “The Unexpected Drawbacks to Positive Thinking,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, 1/30/17. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3067650/the-unexpected-drawbacks-to-positive-thinking
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