By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, CPCC
The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
It is a beautiful, sunny day. Your youngest child just left for college. What a wonderful accomplishment—an exciting transition! But instead of being joyful, you are disoriented. For the past 18 years, you have been focused on taking care of children. Thoughts like Now what? I am scared, and What is my purpose? race through your head.
Throughout the life cycle, we face many transitions like this. Perhaps you are dealing with a loss, a new career opportunity, or a change in family structure or marital status. The reason for the life shift is not important. What is vital is that once you have absorbed the fallout and are ready to move on, you recognize that the path forward begins with your thoughts.
Our thoughts are powerful. They affect many facets of our lives: success, relationships, and even our health. Don’t you remember when, as a child, you complained about being sick and your mother told you that it was all in your head? Research on the brain, thought patterns, and immunity shows that Mom was right. Negative recurrent thoughts have been shown to have an adverse impact on the immune systems of children, adolescents, and the elderly.1 In addition to making us unhappy and preventing us from soaring to new heights in life, our negative thoughts are actually making us sick.
So, how can we change our thoughts and live a healthier, more enjoyable life? The following are five hints for generating more-positive thoughts.
Be aware of your self-talk. You might not be aware of how frequently you speak to yourself and say negative things. Try this to increase your awareness: put a rubber band around your finger or wrist and snap it every time you say something negative to yourself. This will help your awareness. Next, stop and replace the negative messages with neutral or positive messages. For example, instead of telling yourself, I did poorly on that sales call, replace the message with, I will listen actively on my next appointment.
Be grateful. Count your blessings. No, really. Make a list and count them. Nothing is too small to be on the list. It is difficult to simultaneously have thoughts of negativity and gratitude.
See the good. Every situation can be viewed from many perspectives. Make an effort to see the positive side of a situation or the potential for growth. Most of us are familiar with post-traumatic stress, but did you know that post-traumatic growth (growing and developing new perspectives due to trauma) is possible, too? To learn more about this and to look at where you rate on the post-traumatic growth inventory, visit the American Psychological Association’s Post Traumatic Growth Inventory at http://cust-cf.apa.org/ptgi.
Trick yourself and smile. Studies have shown that our faces communicate our states of mind to others and to ourselves.2 An extra bonus of smiling is that it relieves stress. It’s also easier: it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown!
Commit to an exercise program. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, a neurochemical that is linked to happiness.
Remember, if you think you can do something, you can. The next step is to write down some changes that you want to make in your life. Decide you can do it, and you will!
Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, CPCC, is a certified coach and mediator. Her international practice includes clients from every corner of the world and all walks of life-from housewives to senior executives of Fortune 500 companies. She develops and conducts workshops on emotional intelligence for organizations in the United States and Europe. Denise received her master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and has been a mental health professional for over 15 years. Her experience includes: behavioral coach, pre-diabetic adolescent and adult weight management programs, St. Luke’s Medical Center, Ketchum, Idaho; private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic; crisis intervention for New York University; in-patient family therapy at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York City and substance abuse counseling at The Bronx VA Medical Center in New York City. Denise serves on the board of directors of the Idaho Mediation Association and is listed on the Idaho Supreme Court roster of custody and visitation mediators. Contact Denise at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Brosschot JF, Gerin W, Thayer JF. The perseverative cognition hypothesis: a review of worry, prolonged stress-related physiological activation, and health. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2006;60(2):113-24.
2. Wenner, M. “Smile! It could make you happier.” Scientific American Mind. October 14, 2009. Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=smile-it-could-make-you-happier. Accessed December 27, 2012.