When we are stressed it’s quite easy to develop negative thinking patterns as we become frustrated by our challenges and increasing feelings of being overwhelmed. This negative outlook then makes it even harder for us to manage those challenges and move forward and break through the stress cycle.
Practicing positive thinking helps to focus on our strengths and accomplishments, which increases happiness and motivation. This, in turn, allows us to spend more time making progress, and less time feeling down and stuck. The following tips provide practical suggestions that you can use to help you shift into more positive thinking patterns:
- Take Good Care of Yourself
It’s much easier to be positive when you are eating well, exercising, and getting enough rest. Easier said than done, but still important to say it!
- Remind Yourself of the Things You Are Grateful For
Stresses and challenges don’t seem quite as bad when you are constantly reminding yourself of the things that are right in life. Taking just 60 seconds a day to stop and appreciate the good things will make a huge difference.
- Look for the Proof Instead of Making Assumptions
A fear of not being liked or accepted sometimes leads us to assume that we know what others are thinking, but our fears are usually not reality. If you have a fear that a friend or family member’s bad mood is due to something you did, or that your co-workers are secretly gossiping about you when you turn your back, speak up and ask them. Don’t waste time worrying that you did something wrong unless you have proof that there is something to worry about.
- Refrain from Using Absolutes
Have you ever told a partner “You’re ALWAYS late!” or complained to a friend “You NEVER call me!”? Thinking and speaking in absolutes like ‘always’ and ‘never’ makes the situation seem worse than it is and programs your brain into believing that certain people are incapable of delivering.
- Detach From Negative Thoughts
Your thoughts can’t hold any power over you if you don’t judge them. If you notice yourself having a negative thought, detach from it, witness it, and don’t follow it.
- Squash the “ANTs”
In his book “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,” Dr. Daniel Amen talks about “ANTs” – Automatic Negative Thoughts. These are the unhelpful thoughts that are usually reactionary, like “Those people are laughing, they must be talking about me,” or “The boss wants to see me? It must be bad!” When you notice these thoughts, realise that they are nothing more than ANTs and squash them!
- Practice Lovin’, Touchin’ & Squeezin’ (with consent!)
You don’t have to be an expert to know the benefits of a good hug. Positive physical contact with friends, loved ones, and even pets, is an instant pick me-up. One research study on this subject had a waitress touch some of her customers on the arm as she handed them their checks. She received higher tips from these customers than from the ones she didn’t touch!
- Increase Your Social Activity
By increasing social activity, you decrease loneliness. Surround yourself with healthy, happy people, and their positive energy will affect you in a positive way!
- Volunteer for an Organization or Help Another Person
Everyone feels good after helping. You can volunteer your time, your money, your knowledge or your resources. The more good you put out into the world, the more you will receive in return.
- Use Pattern Interrupts to Combat Rumination
If you find yourself ruminating, a great way to stop it is to interrupt the pattern and force yourself to do something completely different. Rumination is like hyper-focus on something negative. It’s never productive, because it’s not rational or solution-oriented, it’s just excessive worry and stress. Try changing your physical environment – go for a walk or sit outside. You could also call a friend, pick up a book, or turn on some music.
It’s important to understand the signs of stress and react with a positive way of handling it such as these 10 tips. The key to busting stress is making sure that you look after YOU. As your happiness levels increase, your stress levels decrease. Have a look at your work life, your personal life and social life to see if there are any areas you can create more happiness. You might be surprised on what you find.
If you feel that you need a little more of a helping hand and support in implementing these tips, then seeing a qualified integrative naturopath and therapist is a great start to making the small changes that can have huge positive impacts.
This month I had a conversation with a patient about vacuum cleaners and how they only work if you use them, rather than just leave them in the middle of the room. It got me thinking about a new vacuum I bought for the clinic last year (or so I told myself…)
The new little vacuum didn’t even make it into the clinic! I brought it home and there it’s stayed…
The old vacuum is certainly effective, but it is big, cumbersome and lives in a cupboard, while the new one is cordless, light and slots onto a little stand for recharging. You can simply pick it up, vacuum up what you need cleaned up and pop it back with absolutely zero fuss. Since this little vacuum entered my home, I think I vacuum at least ten times as much as before! Why? Because it’s fuss free, it requires so much less effort to use and (most importantly) it’s visible!
This is one example of how small changes to your surroundings can change your behaviours (and even your thoughts about particular situations). In this case, I’m still the same person, but my behaviour changed purely because it was now easier for me to complete the task. Previously, once I actually dragged out the old vacuum I was often surprised about how quickly and easily I completed the task and wondered why I put it off for so long, but then proceeded to follow exactly the same pattern of thoughts and procrastination each and every time.
I broke that pattern by changing something, Any change, however small, can lead to a breaking an unhelpful pattern of thoughts and it’s these small changes that play a part in setting yourself up for successes, rather than repeated failures.
I’ve always advocated for enabling small successes through small changes that lead to big successes and big changes. In general, if something takes more effort then you are less likely to do it, and if it takes less effort then you are more likely to do it. These small changes can be as simple:
– If you have more racing thoughts at night, then keep your journal by your bed rather than in a different room.
– If you are struggling with snacking on sweets at work, keep them off your desk and away in a cupboard – having to walk to your cupboard can be hard compared to reaching into a drawer at your desk!
– If you are finding that time escapes you, take a minute to make a plan and schedule time for yourself. Even committing to paper (and no one else!) can be enough to make it real.
– If you always have a bag of frozen vegetables in your freezer, you’re more likely to add them to meals rather than avoid spending time prepping fresh ones.
It’s human nature to do what is easiest – it’s not a moral failing or character flaw! Your environment can significantly impact your choices, your behaviours and your thoughts – so set yourself up for success and make that environment one that works in your favour rather than against you.
Who’s noticed the Christmas decorations popping up already? Some places jump in early and start putting them up in November, whilst others like to really get a head start and have Christmas items available in October! Whilst this doesn’t bother me one way or another, it does serve as a sign that the next couple of weeks are likely going to get tougher for many people.
Much like the archways and carpets of purple jacaranda trees in bloom were a reminder that it was really time to knuckle down and study because exams were only weeks away (I know, I know… I was one of those students!), the emergence of Christmas decoration is a signal that those who are already struggling are about to be struggling even more.
Those who are in a financial bind find this time of year particularly difficult with lower working hours and higher expenses, especially if they rely on childcare during school holidays. Those in situations of family violence or abuse often find this time of year an even greater risk to their safety as tempers (and often alcohol) run over. Those who struggle with addiction (substance, food or habit) can find this time of year to be an even greater challenge than the rest of the year as the words ‘treat yourself’ become more visible with each day. Those who are affected by physical or mental conditions often find their symptoms are exacerbated towards the end of the year by stress, fewer available treatment appointments and a sense of exhaustion. Those who are already in fragile mental states through depression, grief or anxiety can find their balance is tipped from managing their condition to not coping well at all.
It is important to remember that if you are not one of these people, it is very likely that others close to you are. They may not wish to advertise their struggles, but their struggles will still be very real. Try to look beyond your immediate needs and be aware of who may be having a particularly hard time – offer them support, kindness and gentleness. It may well be the most important gift they receive this year.
Despite not planning it, I have ended up primarily working in womens’ health and most of my patients are mothers, ranging from the very new to those with decades of experience. As a result, I tend to see the same issues presenting over and over and over again. I see the exhaustion from excessively long ‘to-do’ lists, sleep deprivation from broken nights or too early mornings, and malnutrition from skipping meals or ‘forgetting’ to eat something fresh and from the ground. I see the conditions that have gone for far too long because there was always something else that needed to be dealt with that had higher priority – for many women, then don’t even remember when they because the least important person in their lives (more on that another time…)
But more than that – I see the loneliness. These women are connected to others in a myriad of ways – social media, work, school, family, friends – but they are essentially all lonely. Despite never actually being alone, they feel constantly alone. Within the struggle of balancing the various hats they wear – wife, mother, daughter, sister, worker, friend – the balance is lost, often to the point that ‘self’ is also lost along the way.
Many of these women have people they consider friends, but they are kept at a distance (emotional or physical) for a variety of reasons. I wonder if this new definition of friend is beneficial, because the relationships described as friendships by these women would barely pass as acquaintances. So many of these strong, intelligent women describe having many friends, but no one close at all, and they give a dazzling array of reasons as to why it has to be that way. Some of these include self protections (because you can’t be hurt if no one gets close), comfort (because even the idea of organising a catch up is too much), circumstance (moving frequently can disrupt even the best intentioned relationships) or even just societal expectation (the idea that women are natural nurturers and should be self sufficient without needing to rely on others).
The last one is the one that sticks with me most – women are burning out because they think they are supposed to do it all, all the time, flawlessly.
So many women are so set in their way of thinking that they MUST be able to do everything perfectly without assistance that even the smallest change to let go becomes incredibly difficult. We have forgotten that in the past women were not alone in raising children – there were extended families, neighbours, friends who had done, were doing or would be doing the same thing. Just as most women today have never seen a normal birth instead of the sanitised and unrealistic movie-births (yet more false expectations on women), many women of my generation have never seen a village raising a child – only the smallest units who are encouraged to stand alone and showcase show easy and wonderful it is to do it all!
When asked “Are you lonely?” they respond that of course they’re not lonely! They have 250 friends on social media and share inspiration boards with 150 more! There’s not time to be lonely! Yet they all describe, in exquisitely painful detail, exactly how lonely they really are before sometimes realising just how alone they feel.
Change takes time and effort. Not everyone is ready at any given time to attempt to change their mindset, their surroundings or their approach. For some it can take months or even years, and some never really manage it at all. Societal change takes even longer, but it is heartening to see there is more being discussed out in the open on the loneliness of mothers today, no matter how connected they may be in the digital world.
Most importantly, you don’t have to attempt anything it on your own.
You’re not alone.
By now, we’ve all read about the benefits of gratitude in terms of positive mental health and even improvements to physical health. There is plenty written about how gratitude is good for you and there is a booming market in gratitude journals, apps and playlists. (Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade have a look here, here, here and here for a starting point on the benefits of gratitude!)
I was very pleased to heard some nice words from two patients in the last month within days of one another – one wanted to touch base and ask my opinion on an activity she was interested in trying, the other had turned his world view around significantly in recent months.
Both said ‘thank you for being my stepping stone’.
Those. Exact. Words.
I found this to be both a tremendous honour, incredibly humbling and, at the same time, powerfully uplifting. Here were two people who came to me for vastly different issues (although both were physical rather than psychological worries), but who came away feeling so much more empowered to change their lives for the better. They were always capable of doing so, but just needed that first step in the right direction to be guided by someone else.
It’s a very humbling experience to be the person who can hold someone’s hand as they take that step in the right direction which leads them to change their entire lifestyle or world view and to watch them bloom into their new self – happier, healthier and better able to continue to grow.
I think I’ll keep being a stepping stone for a little while longer 😉
I am seeing a patient this month for unexplained weakness and perceived weight loss. In the course of six months, he lost his mother and best friend (both overseas), cut his alcohol intake and started an almost vegetarian diet and very small portion sizes.
He’s not stressed, he tells me – he’s just a little sad. I can see right away that he is more than just a little sad. He looks exhausted and drained and burdened. As we talk, he reveals that he is sleeping fine – a few hours a night. That his appetite is fine – for one or two small meals per day. That his mood is fine – except that he last felt happy months ago. That his energy levels were fine – except he was so tired. He eventually concedes that maybe things are not all that fine after all.
I ask him about whether he’d considered grief counselling and he laughed and said he ‘doesn’t believe in that stuff’! On the other hand, he did listen carefully to how much ‘that stuff’ can affect him not only physically in the here and now, but also when looking back at his life and reliving many of the moments triggered by the passing of two people so close to him. He carries the memories and emotions of these experiences as heavy weights which have only seemed heavier in the last few months. Is it truly any wonder he was feeling weaker?
I had set him a difficult task this month – to actively pay tribute and explore those memories, and to reframe them. Some of the guilt, anger and sadness he has been carrying for decades will lift as he is able to see the events and the people involved from a different angle. He cannot change the events, but he can change how he feels about them. By changing his feelings surrounding these events, he is able to change his thoughts. What’s more, by practicing this skill, he will be better able to assess future experiences and reframe them at the time, rather than (at times) years later after they have had time to become an almost permanent fixture in his psyche.
At the end of the month, he has filled pages in his journal with moments from the last 40 years that he can look back on now with a completely different vision. It was not easy, but it was essential. He will be able to carry those memories far more easily.
What appeared to be on the surface a simple case of nutritional inadequacy had a far deeper component. I often mention that the mind and body are so closely linked that changing something small in one can have tremendous effects on the other – why not guide those effects in the best direction possible?