DEAR DOCTOR K: I’m a “glass half-empty” type of person. I know that way of thinking adds to my stress and unhappiness. Is it possible to change the way I see things?
DEAR READER: Yes, there is. Through a type of “talk therapy” called cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn to reframe negative thoughts. That, in turn, can help change how you feel.
CBT can help you challenge overly simplistic, irrational, negative thoughts. It’s easiest when the thoughts are patently untrue: “I never do anything right,” for example.
A four-step process taught at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital is one way to counteract distortions and negative thoughts:
STOP. Call a mental time-out when you feel stressed.
BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths and step back from whatever is causing you stress before you react.
REFLECT. Ask yourself: Is this thought or belief true? Did I jump to a conclusion? What evidence do I actually have? Is there another way to view the situation? What’s the worst that could happen?
CHOOSE. Decide how to deal with the source of your stress. For example:
• Problem-solve what you can control. Gather information, make a plan and take action.
• Accept what you cannot change.
• Challenge distorted, irrational thinking. Ask yourself: How else can I think about this? What else can I do to cope more effectively?
I’ve also come to believe that there are many goals that we all tend to set aside. Sometimes the skills required are easy to learn in childhood and hard later on. Sometimes attaining the skills requires more time and practice than is feasible.
But when it comes to changing personal qualities – such as impatience or lack of self-confidence – I’m more optimistic. I think we all are more capable of change, even later in life, than we might imagine.