5 Steps to “Think Well”
It’s easy to say “think positively” or “don’t be so down on yourself.” But, when the rubber hits the road, it’s often hard to apply. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America report that 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder, while nearly 16 million American adults have had at least one depressive episode in their lifetime. Such disorders take a toll on how we think. But, even if a formal disorder isn’t present, to “Think Well” can be difficult.
In my work as a therapist, I often find that the source of distress is not so much people’s emotions, but the thoughts they have about them. We all have what are called “automatic thoughts”. These could be positive (“I did a really good job on that”), negative (“this sandwich is horrible”), or neutral (“I need to remember to turn the oven off”). The interesting part about thinking is that we tend to view our thoughts as fact, even when they are not. They are simply thoughts. So, here are some steps to challenge your current way of thinking and learn how to truly “Think Well”:
1) Acknowledge – Step one is simply acknowledging the thoughts we have, whether positive, negative, or neutral. Since the discomfort of our thinking habits comes from our reactions to emotions, stop the process by simply acknowledging what is present.
2) Accept – Accept that your thoughts are your thoughts. They are automatic. So, trying to change them, scold yourself, or trying to convince yourself something that just isn’t true (“I’m not nervous when public speaking”) isn’t productive.
3) Challenge – If you notice yourself speaking in absolutes (“I never…”) or using negative terms (“You are stupid…”), challenge those thoughts! If you had to prove in a court of law, for example, that you never think of other people before yourself, what hard evidence would you have that isn’t based on your emotions? This process of challenging begins to break apart the hold of automatic thoughts and helps us see how there are exceptions to our rules.
4) Reframe – Even if thoughts we have aren’t supportive of our complete wellness, we can reframe them to be supportive. Instead of “I hate that guy!”, reframe your thoughts to reflect on how “I am just not a fan of him”. Instead of “I’m such a failure at maintaining an exercise routine”, reframe your thoughts to say that “I am in the process of learning what doesn’t work so that I can learn what does”. Think in ways that are an exception to the rule. Or, in one area, even if it feels tiny, recognize how your challenge is simply a way for you to learn more about yourself.
5) Use the 5:1 rule – John Gottman, a research-based relationship guru, found that, in order for any relationship (e.g. couples, parent-child, employee-employer) to have a positive outlook, there has to be at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. This also applies to the relationship with your Self. So, use your reframe to create positive affirmations that what is going right. This may sound like “Even though I don’t have it all perfect right now, I continue to grow as a person”, “I tried my best”, etc. Give yourself a pep-talk that you deserve when you notice your thinking going south.
After reading all this, you may be asking “How on earth am I supposed to know when I need to practice this stuff!?” Remember to use your body as a tool. If you find yourself feeling down following a thought you just had, spring into action to “Think Well”. You won’t be perfect at it but it will get easier with time. Just like learning to “Eat Well” and “Move Well” takes practice, thinking well does, too.