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A 4-step plan to help you find the bright side — and turn around a bad day.
The Renew You Challenge is the newest health and wellness experience from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. Every weekday in October, we’re sharing new ideas to help build up your body, mind and spirit.
Negative thoughts looping around your brain? Join the club. The year 2020 has come with a ton of anxiety and uncertainty. Michelle Paul, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the community mental health clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sees it all the time.
“People can get carried away by the negative thoughts rushing in circles around their brain,” she says. “It’s like a whirlpool that’s spinning and carrying them away — and those negative thoughts often lead to negative behaviors.”
Luckily there’s a technique to stop the spin and calm the waters. Cognitive restructuring — or reframing — can help you get control of thoughts and situations, so you can start to feel better.
Reframing can help you see things from a different perspective. “It’s a lot like looking for the silver lining,” Paul explains. “Facts, feelings and behaviors are all intimately connected, so if you can change one of those areas, you can automatically start to affect the other two.”
Why Negative Thoughts Form in the First Place
“As human beings, we’re wired to remember negative experiences in an effort to protect ourselves,” says Miyume McKinley, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. “Let’s say you eat bad food at a restaurant and get sick. Your brain will store that negative experience to ensure you’ll remember that you shouldn’t eat there again. Often, to avoid negative experiences, we think of the worst-case scenario. However, reframing can put us back in charge of our own lives.”
When you’re anxious and life seems chaotic, reframing can help give you back a sense of control. Research shows that reframing can be effective at derailing negative thoughts, according to a 2017 report in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology. Studies have shown, for example, that reframing helps diminish symptoms of depression, and it can also help alleviate anxiety and fear.
With reframing, you start with your thoughts, says McKinley. One common example: Focusing on the worst-case scenario. Psychologists call this catastrophizing. Maybe there’s a thought like this in your head: I’m so overwhelmed, and it’s making my life horrible. Or I’ll never finish the family tree project I’ve told everyone about, which is sure to let my cousins down.
That loop of negative thinking could even come with a side order of anxiety and sadness. But reframing can make it stop.
“You can take a step back and ask yourself how the situation has challenged you or forced you to learn something new,” Paul suggests. “Instead of using judgmental words like horrible, you can try looking for some positives.”
Draw on past experiences to transform that negative thought and challenge yourself to look at the problem in a new way. “Stand up and intentionally move that whirlpool in the opposite direction,” says Paul.
Instead of curling up on the couch, overcome with anxiety, you might reframe your negative thought into Here’s what I can do in the next 15 minutes to help. Seems like a cliché? Maybe, Paul says — but it really works. “It’s a helpful exercise that can put you in a growth zone.”
It’s really helpful to work with a therapist, but you can also try reframing on your own. Use these steps as your guide.
Step #1: Identify Negative Thought Patterns
A constant loop of negativity can put you on a spiral to even more negativity, anxiety and depression, says McKinley. “There’s a strong mind-body connection,” she explains, “so it can even impact your physical health, raise your blood pressure and weaken your immune system.”
Pay attention to how you’re feeling — and to what you’re hearing from family members and close friends.
“If you’re plagued by headaches and insomnia, you’re constantly cranky, or your loved ones are beginning to inquire if you are OK, those might be signs that you’ve fallen into a negative thinking trap,” McKinley explains. “These may be signs that your thought patterns are more harmful than helpful.”
Step #2: Do a Fact Check
Are you overwhelmed by all-or-nothing thoughts? Maybe you’re thinking My friends don’t like me or I’m a failure. When you’re caught up in a spiral of negative thinking, it can seem like all of those bad things are true.
But chances are, they’re not. “Unpack each of the negative thoughts,” suggests McKinley, “and ask yourself some questions: What’s the evidence that it’s true? What if it were true? Why does it matter? What is the evidence that this will never get better?”
A quick reality check is a good starting point. It can help you see that your negative thoughts are just thoughts — they’re not necessarily connected to your actual life.
Step #3: Look for Alternative Thoughts
Being hard on yourself because you misspoke or forgot an appointment? Here’s the truth: Everybody forgets appointments, and we can all relate to saying something we later regret. You can reframe the negative thought with an alternative, positive one.
With your alternative thought, try to avoid emotional language. At first, it may help to write some better thought options down, says Paul. You might reframe I’m disappointed in myself into I have a simple plan to keep my appointments in the future. Bingo! You’ve reframed the thought — and changed your behavior.
“If you don’t actually believe your alternative thought, that’s OK,” says Paul. “Keep repeating it until you notice a difference in your mood. The more you practice, the more you can push that whirlpool back in the other direction.” The trick: Do it consistently until it becomes a habit.
Give Yourself a Lift
Your emotional well-being is just as important as your physical health. In fact, they’re connected. Renew's emotional health resources are designed to inspire and empower you to live your life to the fullest. To find them, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Emotional Health in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.
Step #4: Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude
Taking a moment to be thankful for the things we often take for granted, such as having our five senses or appreciating nature, has been shown to help improve our sense of well-being and boost positive emotions, says McKinley. And gratitude can become another tool to help you reframe negative thoughts, according to researchers at Florida State University.
Annoyed with a slow customer-service call for an item you’ve ordered online? Feeling crabby about missing your weekly coffee group? “Negative thoughts color your perceptions, often resulting in you only noticing things that are associated with that negative thought,” says McKinley. “Instead of thinking about how long you’ve been on hold or what you’re missing out on, focus on something more positive, such as having a friend you can call or the money to cover your items.”
You might even let the customer service representative know that you understand how difficult her job may be these days. “Your positive thoughts can lead to positive actions,” says McKinley.
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