Positive Thinking: Powerful or Problematic?

One thing that all spoonies will hear at some point in their journey is the instruction ‘think positive’.  There are very mixed feelings about this: some spoonies write whole blogs about how positive thinking makes their lives bearable while others write about how much they hate hearing it.  Why is it so controversial?

Well, lets think about this for a second.  If your friend or coworker came to you and told you they had broken their leg, would it be appropriate to tell them to think positive?  Would any amount of thinking positive make their leg suddenly heal itself?  No.  So why do people think it will cure chronic illnesses?

Well, they don’t.  Often phrases like ‘stay positive!’ are said when the person saying it  cant think of anything meaningful to say and they aren’t comfortable asking you what you need from them.  It’s often said by the same people who say ‘things can only get better’ and ‘could be worse’.  This kind of wishy-washy sentiment is not helpful and can in fact be harmful, to both the person you’re saying it to and your relationship with them.  Is this a person you want to keep in your life?  Then steer clear of the platitudes.

What are you really saying when you offhandedly tell someone to think positive?  You’re telling them that you believe they are a) exaggerating and being morbid about something that isn’t all that bad or b) that you’re tired of hearing them sound negative.  Yes, sometimes even spoonies want to tell their spoonie friends to get a grip because all they do is moan.  But you know what?  We have a lot to moan about.  Right now I have a swollen and sore foot from a steroid injection, a sore mouth because I’m waiting for dental surgery, a sore shoulder, sore hip and the weird tingly nerve on my scalp is on full blast.  I can be as positive and upbeat as I like, those problems aren’t going away.

That being said, positive thinking can be a very powerful tool in the spoonie tool box.  During the EPP course and tutor training I attended (expert patients program – ask your GP if they run in your area, they’re great) positive thinking was taught as a technique.  At first I was dubious for all the reasons I’ve talked about in this article.  I was there to learn self management techniques, not be fed one liners about mind over matter.  However, I actually did learn some useful things.

When it comes to positive thinking it’s not about thinking yourself well or using your mind to get rid of pain, none of that can be done and it’s just gimmicks sold by con artists.  The point is to find ways to prevent the pain/fatigue/anxiety/depression from overwhelming us.  There are times in the past where I’ve been lying in bed or sitting at my desk and the pain or the depression has been all I can think about until I become unable to do anything but cry and wish I was dead.  But now I have embedded positive thinking techniques into my life, this is a rare occurrence.*

So here’s a technique about changing negative thoughts which can help with depression and low moods.  During our daily lives we will say a ridiculous amount of negative things to or about ourselves.  You may tell yourself you’re fat, you’re an underachiever, you’re not liked.  I’m known for saying I’m stupid a lot, even though I’m not really.  It may be helpful at the beginning of this technique to spend a day or two writing those comments down so you remember them.  You will probably find there are some common ones and that’s OK, good even.  Pick out the ones that occur most regularly or the ones that bother you most, just 3 or 4 and turn them around.  Instead of saying ‘I’m fat’ say ‘I look great X outfit’.  Instead of saying ‘I’m an underachiever’ say ‘I have a job/hobby that I am dedicated to and will keep working on’.  Instead of saying ‘I’m not liked’ say ‘I have some close friends who love me’.  It’s not about just saying the opposite, it’s about finding something real that disproves the negative thought.

Say these to yourself in the morning, before you go to bed, when you find yourself thinking negatively.  I find it useful to write things I or other people say about me on post-it notes and stick them around my mirror.  That way I see them and me at the same time and subconsciously start to link them together.  Eventually the practice will become embedded in your thinking and you will naturally turn around negative thoughts you have.  Of course, no technique in infallible so don’t feel bad if you still have the odd negative thought you can’t turn around.  That’s part of life.**

But how can positive thinking help pain?  This is the part where most people are dubious.  So here’s the big secret: it can’t.  Positive thinking can’t reduce or change the pain you feel, what it does is change the way you react to the pain.  Try this technique to demonstrate.  Set a timer for 60 seconds.  Sit quietly and still with your eyes closed and focus on your body, focus on the pain it’s in, the discomfort, the weird noises it makes, the pressure from the chair you’re sitting on, the itch you have but can’t scratch, think about things that make you sad or anxious.  That 60 seconds felt like a lifetime, right?  Now have another 60 seconds but this time close your eyes and think of all your favourite things and people.  Think of your parents, your friends, your pets, pretty flowers, pizza, art, sex, countryside views, shoes on sale, that guy/girl who winked at you the other day.  That 60 seconds went really fast didn’t it?  The name of the game is distraction.  Like a magician swapping cards around while you look at something else they’re doing, you can trick your brain into not noticing the pain as much if we employ a bit of misdirection.

I have a cache of distraction techniques to use when I need to swap my focus from pain or anxiety to something else. Not all of these techniques will work for everyone so it’s about finding the ones that you find distracting enough.  Some of these work by changing your emotional energy from painful to positive whereas some work by changing your brains focus from emotions to facts.  Personally, I find the latter better but everybody is different.

So first, the emotional ones.  The lottery game: if you won the lottery what would you buy for yourself and what gifts would you give others?  List positive things you or other people have said about you.  Think of a place and time you were happy and imagine you are back there.  List everyone you love and one thing you like about them.  And now some factual ones.  Ask yourself questions in threes, such as: name three living poets, three poems by them and three lines from their poems.  Count backwards from 100 in odd numbers starting with 3 and going up (odds are harder then evens so more distracting but you can use either really).  Look around you and name all the colours you can see.  Name the last five things you touched.  Name as many streets in your area as you can remember.  Recite lyrics/poetry/movies/TV shows.  A lot of these can also be used as tools to help you get to sleep – my current favourite for that is the counting one!

You’ll notice that all the distraction techniques are ones you can do in your head with no equipment and, best of all, nobody can tell what you’re doing.  There are obviously loads of physical distractions you can do but often we have a crisis when we have nothing but the power of our minds available to utilise.

So to answer the question I asked in the title, is positive thinking a powerful tool or a problematic idea, it can be both.  Telling people positive thinking will cure them is very, very problematic.  It shows a basic lack of understanding for the person you’re saying it to and their condition(s).  But using positive thinking techniques has a huge impact on a persons emotional reaction to pain and other symptoms so can be a powerful tool at our disposal.  If you try any of the techniques let me know how you get on!


*I was tempted here to lie and say never but that’s not in keeping with this blogs ethos.  We all have bad days.

**If you have constant low mood, depression and/or want to harm yourself always seeks medical advice.  No nutter on the net ranting about positive thinking is a replacement for good doctors and counselors.  There is help out there.


3 thoughts on “Positive Thinking: Powerful or Problematic?

  1. More than anything nowadays I have to have a cry fest before I can think about being positive again. Sometimes there is also chocolate. I have bi-monthly counseling sessions because I know chocolate and tears don’t fix everything. It’s just not easy to bounce back like I used to. Thanks for bringing up many important points!


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