The Dangers of Positive Thinking

Google ‘books on positive thinking’ and you’ll get pages of results. In fact, the ‘power of positive thinking’ is such a strong belief in pop psychology that challenging it can seem heretical. Yet put in another way, if we are feeling sad, scared or, anxious but tell ourselves we just need to think positively to get rid of those feelings, we are denying the reality of our experience and telling ourselves it’s not okay to feel the way we feel.  The more we deny the reality of our experiences and emotions, the more disconnected we become from ourselves.

Feeling difficult emotions or anxiety is certainly not very comfortable, so no wonder there is a desire to push the experience away. Positive thinking seems to promise an escape from this discomfort, if only we can get the positive thinking right! Yet a 2009 study from the University of Waterloo found that for depressed people positive affirmations resulted in many participants feeling worse.

Instead of ignoring our emotions through positive thinking or becoming stuck and overwhelmed by them, there is a middle ground of managing the discomfort of thoughts and emotions, without needing to disconnect from our experience.

One way to do this is to increase your ability to ‘sit with’ uncomfortable sensations, emotions and thoughts without reacting to them. Part of developing this ability involves being curious rather than judgemental towards our experiences.

For example:

  • Judgmental: “I shouldn’t be so upset by what she said! I’m such a crybaby!”
  • Curious: “wow, I’m feeling really hurt by what she said, I wonder what is going on for me that I’m having this sort of reaction?”

Do you notice yourself having different reactions to the two examples?

Ways of learning to manage difficult thoughts and emotions:

  • Practices such as meditation, yoga or tai chi
  • Mindfulness practices such as focused breathing
  • Books such as Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

What has your experience been with positive thinking?

How is your Breath Effecting You?

Breathing is a funny thing, we’ve been doing it since we were born and generally don’t think much about it. But in terms of anxiety management, gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanics and role of the breath is extremely useful. Jon Kabat-Zinn related that in a survey of several hundred patients who had completed a stress reduction program, the majority rated ‘the breathing’ as the single most important thing they learned.

Here is a little experiment:

Either sitting up straight or standing, place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your stomach.  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth 3x. Notice if either of your hands moves more than the other with your inhales and exhales.

If you notice one hand moving more than the other, try adjusting your breath to get the other hand to move more. See if you notice differences in the two breathing experiences.

If you notice the hand on your stomach moving the most you are likely doing more diaphragmatic or belly breathing which is associated with relaxation. If you notice the hand on your chest moving more you may be shallow breathing which is more associated with stress and vigilance.

Neither is good or bad, the different ways of breathing have different functions and different results. On a very basic level deeper, belly breathing correlates with the parasympathetic nervous system and gives the body signals to relax. Shallow, chest breathing correlates with the sympathetic nervous system getting us ready for fight, flight or freeze.

Learning to cultivate belly/diaphragmatic breathing is an important skill for anxiety management, helping us to tune into our bodies and decrease reactivity. Yet for many people with high anxiety focusing on breath can initially create more anxiety. This reaction isn’t that surprising given that in anxious states we are more prone to try to control things so attempting to let go of and experiment with our habitual way of breathing can at first feel uncomfortable, even scary.

If you are new to exploring your breath, it can be good to start slowly. You could try taking 3-5 belly breaths, like you did in the initial experiment, 1-2x a day for a couple of weeks. Don’t expect it to change right away, shifting breathing patterns take time, the muscles and nervous system need time to adjust.

If you find it too difficult to approach on your own talking to a yoga or meditation instructor, an anxiety counsellor, or some doctors can be helpful.

I would love to hear what your experience has been with breathe and anxiety management. Please feel free to comment below.