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“Think positive.”  “Your thoughts create your reality.” 

We’ve all heard it.  Every great self-help book preaches some variation on this theme.  In fact, there is evidence that changing your habitual thoughts can actually change your brain in ways that will support your new way of thinking.

The question is HOW can I change my thoughts?   

Affirmations? Visualization? Gratitude? All of these practices have their place, and they can excite and motivate you when you already feel great, but if you don’t believe them, the cognitive dissonance will only make you feel worse.  At best, you’ll feel foolish as your brain mocks you for trying.  At worst, they will become anchors that actually create more negative emotions.

In the moments when your thoughts are attacking, it is best to avoid engaging with the substance of what they are saying and instead look at their patterns.  One powerful tool I use to do this is an adaptation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  I resisted CBT for many years because it is typically used to argue or “re-frame” the substance of your thoughts, and my brain just wasn’t buying it.  However, after years of reading study after study proving its effectiveness, I tried again.  As you will see, with just a few tweaks here and there, you can use it to understand what your mind is doing while, at the same time,  circumventing the substance of what it is saying.  These minor modifications have given me a go-to reality check for when my thoughts begin to turn dark.

The following process uses my modifications.  Make sure to personalize it for yourself if you need to, and if you have difficulty, let me know in the comments so I can help you.

Step 1: Rank How You Feel.  

Before every exercise, rank how you feel on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is the worst you have ever felt, and 10 is the best.   Keeping track of your progress will let you know which strategies work best for you, and also give you the motivation to stick with it. 

Step 2: Start Writing.

Like in the 10 Day Challenge,  put the pen to paper and start writing. It doesn’t matter what, just make the pen move across the page. Get everything out of your head and onto the page – all of it.  Leave nothing unwritten.

Sometimes you will be surprised at what comes out.  I often find myself writing about the fear of slipping backward.  Depression episodes leave a mark, and using this technique to address the fear of a relapse reminds me that I can prevent it.

Once it is all on paper, your brain can make room for other thoughts.  The ruminating will slow and decrease its intensity.  You will find it easier to focus on the next steps.

Step 3: Find Your Patterns. 

Compare all that you have written to the thought patterns in the  Cognitive Distortion Checklist, and write down each one. You will likely find that you hit most, if not all, of them.

Step 4: Argue with yourself. (Optional)

I say this one is optional because when I am slipping, I have a hard time arguing with myself. For one thing, I always lose the argument! 😉  If your brain has become skilled at distorting your thoughts, it is easier to go over its head with Step 5.

If you do feel that you can safely argue with your brain, try it!  If it doesn’t feel good, just go to the next step.

Step 5: Ask Yourself if the Thoughts/Feelings are Useful.

Ask yourself: 

  • Will thinking this way help me in any way?
  • Will it change my situation?
  • Will it help anyone?
  • Will it hurt me?
  • Will it hurt others around me?

This is my favorite because there can be no internal argument.  Of course your negative thoughts are not useful. 

Step 6: Make a Deal.

Even when you recognize the futility of your thoughts, it can still be difficult to move on from them.  If it is, make a deal with yourself that you will stop thinking about them just for now, and pick a time at which you will come back to them if you still believe they are important.

Most often, you will never get back to them because your brain will have moved on.

Step 7: Rate How You Feel.

Hopefully, at this point, you will feel at least slightly better, and the moving down the scale will give you some hope and empower you. It will make you realize that you have more control over your thoughts than you think.

Repeat these steps often – even when you’re not feeling so bad. Slowly but surely, it will recondition your brain to automatically skip the bad thoughts, and eventually, the new way of thinking will come more naturally.

Step 8: Let Me Know Your Scores!

I want to hear how you are doing!  Let me know in the comments your before and after scores.  If you’re having trouble, I can help, and if it’s working, we can cheer you on!