The world is currently experiencing a positivity shortage. I'm certain of it. We've never been moanier, angrier, or less kind to everyone around us and ourselves. I mean, hell, we're so fed up that we've even set a day to memorialise our collective sadness—Blue Monday. Yes, I think it's safe to say we have a positivity problem.
That's not to say we're all at fault though. I mean, how could anyone blame us? Right now, we're up against political and economic unrest, a planet that is slowly crumbling around us because we're having a hard time going easy on the plastics and even the weather isn't looking too rosy. We have every reason to be down in the dumps.
But wherever your negativity stems from, it can have some pretty serious effects on your overall outlook. "If we experience trauma or neglect, we develop negative core beliefs about ourselves and the world," explains Sheri Jacobson, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) expert and clinical director of Harley Therapy. "This can look like beliefs such as I am no good, the world is a dangerous place or you can't trust anyone, and these core beliefs hide in our unconscious mind and dictate the way we see the world unless we take time to discover and change them."
I don't know about you, but I'd quite like to turn this ship around, so I've decided that rather than chocolate, I'm giving up negativity for Lent. But that means I need some hard and fast tips and techniques on how to be more positive because just telling myself I'll ditch the negativity isn't enough.
And this is where CBT comes in. "CBT looks chiefly at the way out thoughts create our lives," reveals Jacobson. "If we work on our thoughts, we can change the ways we behave and the results we get. Our lives begin to change." Given that that's such a dreamy prospect, I asked Jacobson to recommend three easy CBT exercises that I (and you—we're in this together) can do at home to help brighten up my future outlook. Let's see if we can shake this negativity once and for all.
"Activity monitoring means spending a week or two monitoring every hour of your day. It sounds tedious, but it has been shown to alleviate depression, and it can help you finally create a life full of things you enjoy," explains Jacobson.
This whole exercise is built around the idea that when we're depressed, we make assumptions about our own productivity and achievement. "We either hide from life and tell ourselves 'we have no time' or we beat ourselves up for not achieving enough." Sound familiar? Well, keeping an activity diary will be the most factual way to see where your time is going and how you are filling your days. "It can be quite an eye-opener," Jacobson promises.
"For a week or two, set an alarm to go off every hour and then record into a diary everything you have done in the hour that passed and what your mood was as you did it. State what the mood was, then rate it from one to 10. For example, 'phone call with ex, anxious, 5,'" explains Dr Jacobson.
After a week or two, you'll start to see some patterns emerging, and you should be able to spot a correlation between your moods and your activities. "You might realise that the reason you never have time to take that dance fitness class is not because you are lazy—you're just simply filling your time with things that don't even make you feel good," she explains.
This is when you need to work out the things you can drop to free up some time to fill with the things that make you happy.
Challenge your thoughts
"CBT uses 'thought records' where you learn to catch your negative thoughts and question them," explains Jacobson.
The simplest way to do this is to take time each day to question three negative thoughts you experience. Do this either at the end of every day or when your mind starts being plagued by negativity.
"Write down the negative thought. Then write down its exact opposite and the process can help you realise that maybe your negative thought was a bit extreme." Then find a thought that is in the middle. A good example she provides is as follows: I am useless at my job. I am the best person in the office at doing my job. Okay, actually, sometimes I mess up at work, but I manage fairly well at my job.
If you find that a bit tricky, Jacobson has some advice: "If it helps, find a few facts that 'prove' both the negative thought and its opposite." For example, I am useless, as I forgot to send that email, my presentation wasn't good, and I didn't get a promotion this year. I am the best at doing my job, as I am the fastest typer, I get along better with the client base than anyone else, and I am always on time. "This shows how our thoughts are generally just assumptions and that we can 'prove' anything," she adds.
Break It Down
Quite often when we feel stressed, it's because we're completely overestimating what it would take to fix the issue at hand. "We end up overwhelmed and feeling like a failure," explains Jacobson. "CBT uses 'graded task assignment' to turn overwhelming tasks into something manageable. We then start to actually achieve our goals and feel better about our future." Sounds good, right?
Jacobson walks us through it: "At the beginning of each week, write down the one challenge that is overwhelming you the most. Spend time breaking it down into the smallest steps you can. Keep breaking it down until you have every single step that you'd need to do to get the challenge done. Then put those steps in the most logical order possible."
Then it's time to schedule in that first and subsequent steps, but according to Jacobson, it's super important to match each task to your energy levels at that time. "If the task really doesn't match what you are up to, don't create a situation where you'll beat yourself up because you won't be able to achieve the mini goal," she explains. "Switch to another step. For example, if you are overwhelmed by applying for a promotion and one of the steps is calling a headhunter for a chat but you are having an emotional day, maybe choose another step like rewriting the intro paragraph of your CV."
Feeling ready to radiate positivity? I know I am.
For more information on CBT and the treatment available, head to the Harley Therapy website.