Thinking about wellness

January 8, 2013

Michael R. Mantell

Ever wonder if "thinking on the bright side" really matters? Well, it only matters if you want to lead a healthy, fit and happy life. Otherwise, it's an empty, but very nice, slogan.

You see, positive thinkers and smilers cope more effectively with stress. My experience tells me these healthy thinkers prevent stress from developing in the first place. They free themselves from conjuring catastrophic fantasies that lead to mental and physical stress.

Recent research also points to the powerful impact healthy thinking can have on immunity. Not quite the latest fizz pill loaded with vitamins and supplements, but optimism leads to a stronger immune response than does pessimism.

The "polyester" thinking style, rather than the "linen" thinking style, i.e., resilience rather than wrinkling and crinkling in the face of tough circumstances, depends on rational, realistic thoughts. This, in turn, creates the kind of responses that enable people to "sing in their lifeboat" in the face of challenging circumstances.

Optimism has also been associated with healthier cardiovascular health, decreased levels of depression, and even longevity.

Great, but just how, specifically, does one learn to think this way? The Greek philosopher Epictetus pointed the way: "People are not disturbed by things but by the views they take of them." This means that an activating event (A) does not lead to an emotional consequence (C), but rather it is an individual's beliefs (B) about the activating event that creates the consequence. Leave out B and you've essentially decapitated yourself.

So to think in a healthy way, catch, challenge, and change your irrational (unrealistic, inaccurate) thoughts. Common irrational beliefs that lead to depression, anxiety, and/or anger include the belief that you "must be approved of or loved by almost everyone," that you "must be thoroughly competent at almost everything," that "some people are "˜bad' and must be punished severely," that you/others/life should be a certain way and it's terrible if you/they/life aren't," that "external forces control you," and that "it's easier to avoid than to face life's difficulties."

David Burns developed a brief lexicon of the types of mental filters and distortions worthy of searching for if you want to catch, challenge, and change your erroneous thinking to become healthy.

1. All-or-nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.

2. Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3. Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.

4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities "don't count."

5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading "” you assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there's no evidence for this. (b) Fortune-telling "” you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly.

6. Magnification or minimization: You blow things out of proportion or you shrink their importance inappropriately.

7. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel: "I feel like an idiot, so I must really be one."Or "I don't feel like doing this, so I'll put it off."

8. "Should" statements: You criticize yourself or other people with "shoulds" or "shouldn'ts," "musts," "oughts," and "have-tos," are similar offenders.

9. Labeling: You identify with your shortcomings. Instead of saying "I made a mistake," you tell yourself "I'm a jerk" or "a fool" or "a loser."

10. Personalization and blame: You blame yourself for something you weren't entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that your own attitudes and behavior might contribute to a problem.

So here's a template for you to work with in creating healthier thinking and living:

A. Activating event you recently experienced about which you became upset or felt disturbed (e.g., "I was criticized").

B. Irrational belief or evaluation you had about this activating event (e.g., "I must not be criticized").

C. Emotional and behavioral consequences of your irrational belief (e.g., "hurt and compulsive eating").

D. Disputing or questioning your irrational belief (e.g., "Why must I not be criticized?")

E. Effective new thinking or answer that resulted from disputing your irrational belief (e.g., "Although I prefer not to be criticized, nothing etched in stone states that I must not be.")

F. New feeling or behavior that resulted from disputing your irrational belief (e.g., "Great displeasure and controlled eating").

It's that straightforward. Sure, proper nutrition, exercise, healthy relationships, fulfilling work, good genes, pride in a sense of accomplishment, and seeing meaning in life all help create rational thinking and mental and physical health. These are anchored in healthy, rational thinking. The kind that is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind. Hmmm, isn't that what "think" means?

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. is the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise, earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and has served as a behavioral psychology consultant to many fitness industry organizations including IHRSA, Total Gym, Dimension One Hot Tubs, AARP, and Les Mills. He is the Chief Behavioral Scientist for Anytime Fitness gyms and a member of the Sports Medicine Team at the Sporting Club of San Diego/La Jolla. In addition to his frequent interviews in national health and fitness magazines, and weekly TV segments, he maintains a private behavioral science coaching practice in La Mesa, California for clients for emotional wellness, fitness and health related issues.

Originally published Jan 8, 2013 10:00:13 AM.