Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Try to hold a string with a pencil tied to the end of it in your hand. Now, for the next minute, do not spin the string. However, continue to tell yourself to rotate the string clockwise and spin it around. Chances are, you noticed how hard it was to actually stop yourself from attempting to move the string in a circular pattern. Even though you knew prior to the exercise that you were not going to move the string, your brain kept telling you to do so, deceiving yourself and falling victim to moving your hand.
This simple task is an example of how the brain is the most complex and powerful organ in our body. The thoughts you allow to enter your mind and let stay there can completely alter a situation — this is essentially how cognitive reappraisal works. Training your mind to shift attention away from oneself and to be more receptive in restructuring negative thoughts to more positive ones has a drastic impact on how you perceive a situation. Changes in perception often lead to a more positive outcome, or at the very least, a more beneficial way of coping with negative events. What if we could increase our chances of experiencing positive outcomes in various situations in our everyday lives? How can we attempt to do that? It all starts with positive thinking.
Yes, positive thinking may sound great in theory, but it is unrealistic to experience joy every waking second and to be constantly cheerful. The world operates in an ambiguous, complex, and disorderly nature, where demanding constant positive thoughts is simply an unreasonable task. In fact, it is very normal and healthy to experience negative emotions, such as sadness, discomfort, and anxiety in our lives. It would be ridiculous if we were expected to be joyous when dealing with everyday stresses, such as long commutes, or minor interpersonal conflicts. However, when consistent pessimistic thoughts intrude our minds, they begin to take over our everyday life and impair our social and occupational functioning. This not only harms the individual, but has a significant impact on the others around them. It seems that negativity is contagious, too.
Although it may be more challenging for some than for others, every person has the capacity to change the way they perceive their respective realities — in essence, to alter their thoughts and engage in cognitive reappraisal. Not every thought that exists in someone’s mind enters by choice — often, these negative thoughts can be intrusive, but the difference is that once they enter, the individual has the power to control them and become consciously aware of what they’re thinking and how they’re thinking about the scenario.
But sometimes, certain scenarios are inescapably unpleasant. However, thinking more upsetting thoughts only reiterates a negative perspective which in turn unnecessarily adds more stress. This can become a vicious cycle of more pessimistic remarks, which in turn can perpetuate a “predetermined” negativity for the rest of the day, causing irritability and discouragement. As the upsetting thoughts linger, they trick us into believing they are true, which only perpetuates the negativity of the situation. We dig ourselves deeper into this black hole of negativity instead of attempting to create a more positive experience out of the situation. Just like quicksand, the more negative thoughts produced, the harder they are to escape. How can we become more resilient, and learn to bounce back from this slump?
Thoreau eloquently answers this question, remarking “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” What we must seek to do every day is to train our minds to think better, happier, and more fulfilling thoughts. Engage in cognitive reappraisal by working to alter negative thoughts. The harder we work to train our mind to produce positive thought content, the more positive emotions and situations we can experience, especially when dealing with unpleasant ones. How we think shapes our reality, creating a perception of our truth, which is a moment that shapes our character and our outlook of life.
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