Recently, I was in a group of women in recovery and I asked everyone what they were grateful for – with a caveat. I usually spearhead any gratefulness pledge (my children, a recent hike, my sobriety…), but my car had just been towed away and I was feeling a bit negative about the potential outcome. There was a mar on my gratefulness affirmation, because I had been forced to walk home from work the night before in 4 inch stilettos. I said, “I am grateful for many things, except I’d be more grateful if my car worked.”
One of my friends said, “You could be grateful you have a car.” Which is really the “I cried because I had no shoes” argument made famous by the ultimate idealist, Helen Keller. Being without a car does not have the same, tragic ring as being feet-less, however.
Someone else said, “Be grateful you live so close to work.”
Still another said, “You are lucky you can walk in those shoes at all.”
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 – it was about helping ourselves train our brains to be more positive. It was about discussing the reason being grateful, optimistic and positive is so good for recovery…
The Health Benefits of Positive Thinking
The gratefulness question was born of research I did on the benefits of positive thinking and how it effects all aspects of one’s health and well-being. Positive thinking is defined as “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 actually makes it so.
When you list the things you are grateful for, it 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 actually relive the happy moment. Positive thinking works in recovery because you focus on the favorable outcome of sobriety and 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 is making you unhappy. There is no denying that life will throw you some curve balls. Navigating the pitfalls of early recovery or dealing with an inoperable car are nobody’s idea of positive experiences. 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 properly addressing an inconvenient, broken car and spending the entire time it is being diagnosed thinking negative thoughts.
- It is Black or White – there is 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 when you sift through the positive aspects of a situation and leave only the lumps of negativity. You focus on what you could have done to make things better – 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 you said something stupid, not because your client already had a stockroom full of what you were selling…
Turning the Frown Upside Down
You can train your brain to think more optimistically. You can actually turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts with a little work. Here’s how:
- Practice the Golden Rule – Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to another person. Think about that…
- 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 yourself to scan the world for its positives.
- Hang Out With Positive People – Don’t be afraid to call someone out on their negativity and surround yourself with those people who are helpful and supportive.
- Exercise – Follow a healthy lifestyle. Exercise at least three times a week and think before you eat – you are fueling your mind and your body!
- Take Time to Stop and Assess – Ever have a day where nothing is going right? Stop and think about what you can do to change your negative thoughts and try to find the positives in the situation. Give yourself positive/negative assessments regularly.
- Be Kind – Send a note, or a Tweet or make a phone call every day to let someone know you are grateful for them. Studies show that gratefulness will make you more productive at work and more 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 breaks down. But when you turn the tables on the negative, you paint a picture in your mind’s eye, of a better world. You are more capable of coping with stress in a constructive way. When you reduce stress, you reduce its harmful effects on your body. And when you feel good, you want lead a healthier lifestyle. These are all components of long term, successful recovery from alcohol and other drugs.