If you struggle to think positive thoughts during difficult circumstances, you are not alone. The good news is you can train your brain to think positively, says Lauren Garvey, MS, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. And it’s never too late to get started.
“You can have negative thoughts or a negative way of viewing things, but that doesn’t mean you are a negative person,” she says. “Having a positive outlook now doesn’t require a history of having a positive perspective.”
Choose your thoughts
“The stories we tell ourselves can make our circumstance seem much worse than it really is,” says Garvey. “Actively practicing positivity is something we should do if we want to become more positive people. Just as we can choose to go to the gym if we want to have a healthier body, we can choose our thoughts based on the life we want.”
The way we view the world and who we are in the world is based on deeply ingrained ideas and judgments from experiences and beliefs we have internalized.
“We might have received these ideas from society or other people, but we have the power to shape our own reality and develop a practice of positivity,” she says.
Positivity can lessen suffering
We all have circumstances — such as a cancer diagnosis — or relationships that cause us to feel pain. While we cannot always control the source of the pain, the good news is we have power and control over the suffering we experience.
“Positivity and gratitude are tools we can use to decrease our suffering, even if we can’t change our situation,” explains Garvey. “One way to decrease suffering is to examine what we are telling ourselves about our experience. In every situation, we are constantly making little judgments. It’s a survival skill. We need to do this to make sure we are safe and that our needs are being met, but our judgments aren’t always reflective of reality.”
If you’re suffering in some way, ask yourself the following questions inspired by Byron Katie’s “The Work”:
Are my thoughts true?
How I do I know they are true?
How am I reacting to this situation?
Who am I when I believe these thoughts?
Who would I be if I didn’t believe these thoughts?
“Asking yourself these questions gives you room to sit back and think, ‘What are my judgments about this situation?’ We can then alter our judgments for the sake of positivity,” she says. “When we judge a situation, it can be helpful because it gives us information as long as we are examining our judgments to see if they are useful or if they are holding us back.”
A positive attitude is something we can control
“What makes physical illness like cancer so frustrating is that we feel like we don’t have any control over our situation,” says Garvey. “So many cancer survivors tell me, ‘I feel totally out of control of my life.’ What’s so wonderful about positivity is that it’s something you can adjust and control. It’s empowering even if you don’t have control over what’s happening in your body. You can control how you’re experiencing it.”
Increase positivity in your life
“We are constantly connected to information these days and unfortunately, it’s not difficult to find negative information,” she says.
If something or someone makes you feel bad, you may need to adjust how you are spending your time. Try these tips to increase positivity in your life:
Be mindful of what you consume. To increase your sense of positivity in the world, it’s important to be mindful of what you read, watch or listen to. When you pay more attention to what you consume, you may realize something is causing your anxiety. For example, when you are feeling well, you may have the emotional capacity to handle a murder-mystery television show, but when you aren’t feeling great, it may be best to skip it.
Leave yourself reminders. The more you practice positivity, the more your mind will look for good things in your life. Leave sticky notes with encouraging thoughts or quotes on your mirror, refrigerator, desk or car dash to remind yourself to think positive thoughts.
Pay attention to how people make you feel. “When you are going through cancer treatment and recovery, you cannot afford to have people in your life who are feeding you negative messages or draining your energy,” says Garvey.
The bottom line: “When we realize our negative thoughts are subjective, we can change them,” she says. “Even in the tough times, the more we practice positivity, the more it will be available to us.”