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Feeling Better, One Thought at a Time

In my column a few weeks ago (entitled “Cogito Ergo Sentio”), I wrote that we all have the ability to improve our emotional health by changing how we think. How do we do this? The process requires more than just a couple of articles to explain, but I thought I’d share some of the basics here.

Let’s start with understanding that when our mood takes a turn for the worse (e.g., we feel depressed or anxious), our thinking tends to become distorted in a variety of ways. For example, we might catastrophize our situation so that we think our problems are much worse than they really are. Or, we might only pay attention to things that confirm our fears and disregard everything else.

As an example, let’s say I’m very anxious because I received a negative evaluation from my boss. In fact, I’m convinced I’ll be fired. In my anxiety, I may not remember that my boss also acknowledged that everyone in the department has been underperforming, not only me. Perhaps I also don’t consider all the times I received high praise for my performance. What I’m doing here is catastrophizing the situation by assuming the worst is going to happen. Also, I’m selectively attending to information. I’m only focusing on the things that confirm my fear that I’ll be fired and I don’t think about the reasons not to be so worried.

As you can see, when people are very anxious their distorted way of thinking reinforces and increases their anxiety greatly. The goal, then, is to challenge one’s thoughts to bring them more in line with reality. As you may have already guessed, examples include (1) keeping the problem in perspective, rather than catastrophizing how bad it is and (2) reminding yourself of all the reasons not to be so worried.

Another way to shift our thinking from negative to positive (and thereby improve our mental health) is by “just doing it” (to paraphrase a famous Nike catchphrase). This means consciously focusing on the good things in our life. When we’re depressed, our world tends to shrink; we fixate on our problems and we minimize or ignore the reasons to be optimistic and happy.

The thinking goes something like this: “Of course I’m depressed. My friend recently passed away, my marriage is on the rocks, and my car just broke down. Look at all the problems I have to deal with. Nothing is going right!” In this example, the person is not acknowledging any of the things going well in his life. He’s only focusing on the bad. With so much bad and nothing good, is it any wonder he feels depressed? On the other hand, if he learns to focus on the good, he can challenge the statement of “Nothing is going right.” He might counter it with, “But wait a minute. Sure I have these very painful problems, but I’m also alive with reasonably good physical health. I have a home and I’m able to put food on the table. I also have a good job. These are positive and wonderful things.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people who are, for example, depressed or anxious choose to feel this way by focusing on their problems. On the contrary, they want to feel better. The problem is that their illness robs them of the ability to make it happen on their own. If our depression is only mild, our distorted thinking is kept at a minimum and it’s easier to also be mindful of the good and positive things in our life. As a result, our mood generally clears up fairly quickly. But, when our depression is intense and persistent, we find ourselves unable to acknowledge the good. To the depressed person, it truly seems there isn’t much that is positive in his/her life. And, if you try to point out the positive, the person will deny it or minimize it. His/her thinking becomes too distorted and s/he is convinced all is bad and will remain bad.

I’d like to present a final analogy. I imagine we’re all familiar with the question, “Is the cup half empty or half full?” It’s quoted so often we probably don’t think much of it anymore, but it refers to a very powerful and life-changing concept. The answer, of course, is that the cup is both half empty and half full. In reality, the cup will never be completely empty or full; it will always be at least partly full or partly empty.

Using this as an analogy for life, we understand that we will always have problems and challenges, but we will also always have good things. We don’t need to wait for things to improve in order to feel better. In this sense, happiness is a choice we make, not something we passively experience. When we choose to focus on the good things in our life, we elect to be happy.

It’s encouraging to know that each of us has the ability to feel better despite our challenges and struggles. Is it easy? Certainly not. But, is it possible? Absolutely! If we improve the way we think, we’ll find that we also improve the way we feel. And that is a very good thing, indeed.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected] or at 201-406-9710.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, Ph.D.

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