1st June 2019

The Power of Thought

How We Think Affects How We Feel

The way we think about a situation can literally either make it easy to handle or make it impossible to deal with.   Our thoughts can calm us down or stir us up.  It is even true that simply thinking about an experience from a different point of view can affect the way we experience pain.  Why should that be?  In theory, one might assume equal wounds would mean equal pain.  Let us take two people suffering from cancer.  One person's reaction to the illness might mean "I'm alive and I am receiving treatment, Hurrah!"  The treatment symbolises relief and an escape from death.   On the other hand, another person undergoing treatment for cancer might dwell on a probability of death rather than the possibility of a cure and the resultant anxiety may only increase the suffering.

It seems important that if we can change the way we think and how we perceive problems then our life will change.  Many people are unhappy with their lives and feel tempted to blame others or unfortunate circumstances for feelings of anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, shame or insecurity.  However, if we blame others then we are at some level expecting others to change and as we cannot change others we then feel helpless and hopeless.  The opposite of this is to take responsibility for ourselves which means taking charge of our emotions instead of allowing our emotions to rule us.  Consider the following example:

An inconsiderate driver has double-parked and you cannot move your car.  You spend much time hooting your horn to attract attention and alert the driver all to no avail.  In desperation you decide to go to the shop in front of your car, which is a chemist, to ask if they know the driver of the car.  Now, imagine what emotion you might feel.  Your thoughts may run something like this: "I'm furious, he is so inconsiderate and selfish.  I hope he gets towed away by the police."  As you enter the chemist, a man runs out to the offending car.  The pharmacist says to you "Poor guy, his baby is very ill and his doctor has given him an urgent prescription."  You may now think differently about this man and feel sorry rather than angry.

Our belief system influences how we think and acts like a compass and a map that guides us towards our goals and gives us confidence to know how we will get there.  Beliefs deliver a direct command to our nervous system. Beliefs can be a very powerful force creating good and positive benefits  in life or they can impose limits on our thoughts and actions which can be devastating,

The ways in which we communicate with ourselves and with others ultimately determines the quality of our lives.  People who succeed in life are those who have learned how to accept the challenges that life throws at them.  People who fail to take the adversities of life as a challenge but see them only as limtations will be be less fulfilled and probably discontented.  When we are able to overcome  fear of adversity and negative thinking we can feel more powerful and  fulfilled. There are a number of common thinking patterns that cause us distress and some of these  are:-

1. Forming catastrophic conclusions without secondary reflection.  For example, when her children are not home from school on time, their mother may convince herself that they have come to serious harm.   Her heart starts pumping wildly and she may become so panicky that she cannot even use the telephone

2. Mind reading.  Many people believe that they know what others are thinking and that others, in turn, should know what they are thinking.  This is all too common and usually leads to disappointment and unhappiness

3. Listening to the critical voice inside you and believing that this self criticism is automatically true

4. The obsessional desire to attain perfection in all things can lead to exhaustion, stress, illness, poor relationships and sometimes low accomplishments

5. Comparing and contrasting differences between people and circustances.  People often distress themselves by making unfavourable comparisons with others

6."What if thinking" which usually means worry, worry, worry.  This involves worrying about events that might happen in the future but more often don't

7. Running your life on the basis of "Should"  and "Should not" actions. "Should" users may build emotional prisons for themselves and rarely take time to enjoy life or relationships with others

8. The "Yes . . . but" game.  These people always find negatives that outweigh any positives so restricting themselves from taking  any action to change their lives

There are common and easily identifable cognitive errors in thinking that can fuel depression.  Aaron Beck, a well-known psychiatrist, has observed the errors that depressed people frequently make in interpreting their experieces.  Cognitive therapy is a model for identifying and correcting the distortions in faulty thinking.  The cognitive model says that your emotions are directly related to your perceptions and it teaches you to deal with your life as rationally as possible.  Below are some of the more common thinking errors:

The all or nothing syndrome is the tendency to make extreme interpretations, seeing everything in black and white with no grey areas.  Examples may be failing an exam and believing you are a failure, not getting the job you wanted and believing that you will never get a job.  This is when you let a small unpleasant experience dominate all your thinking.  Janet wants to move house to be nearer her family and her husband, Gary is more ambivalent about doing so. Janet wants Gary to be as enthusiastic about moving house as she is and when he isn't she believes that he is not willing and then becomes angry.  She therefore puts pressure on her husband as she experiences discomfort with the uncertainity.

Over-generalisation is when a person forms a broad conclusion and then applies it to all situations.  For example, if you have had a negative hurtful experience in a romantic relationship and then decide that people are selfish and egotistical and what is the point of ever making another relationship because you will get hurt again?  Believing that all men and women are the same are examples of distorted thinking.  There are men and women who can be trusted and are caring and loving and others who cannot be trusted.  Your job is to learn to distinguish between the two.

Focusing only on the negative is when depressed people focus and react automatically on the negative aspects, which in turn makes for negative feelings.  If you have a tendency to do this it is important to work hard to find positive aspects of the same situation that are at least neutral or even positive.  As you become more skilled in doing so, you will enlarge your vision to include the neutral and positive.

Disqualifying the positive is the tendency to reject or devalue positive input from others  For example if you believe that you are never quite good enough and someone says to you "thanks for the meal" and you were disappointed because they had not said "thanks for the lovely meal that you cooked."

Jumping to conclusions involves taking a small piece of information and adding your subjective thoughts and reaching a conclusion.  An example might be if someone does not return your telephone call immediately or when you phone them they sound a bit distant and you interpret that you have done something to offend and upset them.

Magnification and minimisation means exaggerating negative aspects or minimising positive aspects that happen in your life.  For example "Yes, I agree that my daughter rang me today but my son never rings me so I feel unsupported by my family."

Emotional reasoning is the use of feelings as the sole basis for interpreting your experience.  For example, my friend is only saying that I am a nice person in order to make me feel better and I know she does not really mean it.

Personalisation means taking personally things that are not at all personal.  Strive to find reasons for things that happen that do not put you at the centre of things.  In other words, don't interpret comments that others make to you as a personal attack.

The ultimate goal is to be as clear and objective as possible about "things."  Learning to monitor and correct your own thoughts and beliefs are essential for breaking the patterns of depression and anxiety. You are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings and you are not your behaviour.  You are also not your past.  Recognising the limitations of human feelings and perceptions and learning to choose when to "go with them" and "when to put them on hold" is the essence of emotional intelligence.

Charles Swindoll in a poem called "Attitude" highlights the importance of positive thinking.


The longer I live the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.

Attitude to me is more important than the past, than education, than money,

than circumstances, than failure, than success,

than what other people think or say or do.

It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill.

It will break an organisation, a school, a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day

regarding the attitude we will embrace for the day.

We cannot change our past.

We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.

We cannot change the inevitable.

The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have,

and that is our attitude.

I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me

and 90% on how I react to it.

And so it is for you . . .