Recently, I was with a group of women in recovery, and I asked everyone what they were grateful for – with a caveat. My car was in the shop, and I felt pessimistic about the looming deductible. I said, “I am grateful for many things, except I’d be more grateful if a tree had not fallen on my car.”
One of my friends said, “You could be grateful you have a car.” This is the “I cried because I had no shoes” argument made famous by the ultimate idealist, Helen Keller. However, being without a car does not have the same tragic ring as being feetless.
Someone else said, “Be grateful you work remotely.”
Okay, okay, I get the message. I already knew that counting my blessings and thinking positively would make me happier and healthier in the long run. Also, this conversation wasn’t about me but about helping ourselves train our brains to be more positive. It was about discussing why being grateful, optimistic, and positive is so good for one’s health and recovery.
The Health Benefits of Positive Thinking
I asked the gratefulness question because I had read about the benefits of positive thinking and how it impacts all aspects of one’s health and well-being. Positive thinking is “a mental attitude in which you expect good and favorable results.” In other words, the more you expect something good to happen, the more often your brain sees the outcome as positive and makes it so.
Listing the things you are grateful for forces your brain to focus on the positives in your life and leaves no room for negative thoughts to enter. Writing down the positive experiences (such as being grateful for your grandchild sitting on your lap or a walk by the lake) allows you to relive the happy moment. Positive thinking works in recovery because you focus on the favorable outcomes of sobriety, not on past mistakes.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following health benefits to positive thinking:
- Reduced blood pressure and lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better overall health, including greater resistance to the common cold
- Better coping skills and more efficiency in managing stress and anxiety
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower stress levels
- Better overall mental health
- Increased life span!
What is Negative Thinking?
So, what is negative thinking? You can’t turn a frown upside down until you understand what makes you unhappy. There is no denying that life will throw you curve balls. Navigating the pitfalls of early recovery or dealing with a large tree limb resting on your roof is no one’s idea of a positive experience. But some people assume the worst – even in the best of times. Negative thinking includes:
- Making Mountains out of Mole Hills – Catastrophic thinking happens when you anticipate the worst-case scenario as an outcome. There is a big difference between adequately addressing an inconvenient car incident and spending the entire time it is being repaired thinking negative thoughts.
- It is Black or White – no Grey – Polarizing always ends up negative because there is no room for compromise or the “grey option.” Polarizers are perfectionists who are never satisfied with their (or anyone else’s) performance.
- What Have you Done for Me Lately? – Filtering is sifting through the positive aspects of a situation and leaving only the negativity. You focus on what you could have done to improve things – ever striving for an impossible ideal.
- It Was ME – When you personalize, you blame yourself for a disappointment or a gaff. You lost the sale because you were dressed inappropriately or said something stupid, not because your client already had a stockroom full of what you were selling.
“We get caught up in life and forget sometimes how good we have it. Just pause, think about it, and you will discover an infinite number of things to be grateful for. Become a student of the interests you love and tap into the joy you deserve.” Rae Green, JD, LPC, CAADC, Sanford Behavioral Health Founder & President
Turning the Frown Upside Down with Positive Thinking
You can train your brain to think more optimistically. You can turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts with a bit of work. Here’s how:
- Practice the Golden Rule – Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to another person.
- Laugh Though Your Heart is Breaking – Look for the humor in a situation. Allow yourself to smile or laugh – especially when times are rough.
- Write it Down – Statistics show that journaling about a positive experience allows you to recreate that experience, and writing down the things you are grateful for will begin to train you to scan the world for its positives.
- Hang Out With Positive People – Don’t be afraid to point out a friend’s negativity, and surround yourself with those people who are helpful and supportive.
- Move Your Body – Move your body for the joy of it.
- Take Time to Stop and Assess – Ever have a day where nothing is going right? Stop and think about how to change your negative thoughts and try to find the positives in the situation. Give yourself positive/negative assessments regularly.
- Be Kind – Send a message, an email, or a phone call daily to let someone know you are grateful for them. Studies show that gratefulness will make you more productive at work and successful in all your relationships.
Let’s face it – life is not all hunky dory, blooming flowers, and napping kittens, especially in early recovery. Sometimes, you have setbacks. Sometimes, your car is inoperable. But when you turn the tables on the negative, you paint a picture of a better world in your mind’s eye. You are more capable of coping with stress constructively. When you reduce stress, you lower its harmful effects on your body. And when you feel good, you want to lead a healthier lifestyle. These are all components of long-term, successful recovery from alcohol and other drugs.