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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kris Boksman, C.Psych

Why Positive Thinking is Bunk

Positive thinking doesn't work.

Ok. Yep. I said it. If you're really down and out, anxious beyond tolerability, feeling super sensitive, wracked with grief, positive thinking is NOT the thing to do. Positive thinking is bunk.

What is bunk, you might ask? I'm not talking bunk beds, I'm talking ...well ... total crap.

This article is Part One of Dr. Kris Boksman's multi-part series How Thinking Really Works for Your Bad Mood, which is an introduction to the foundational principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. As articles are added to this series, they may be found linked to the bottom of this post.

Positive thinking is the hype and it has been for a while. It's really popular! It sells stuff on the internet. It's lovely to put on t-shirts, print in postcards, and to hang on your walls. It is so simple and so appealing - change your thinking by thinking good things and you'll feel good.

It sounds fantastic. There's a solution!

Just change your thinking and you will see that your bad mood is just a choice. I mean, it sounds really great and positive affirmations have their place, to be certain. But when it comes to real, gut-wrenching, totally horrible moods and reactions, it doesn't work.

"Juggling" by Phillie Casablanca is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I see many, many, many memes these days that focus on overcoming one's negative mood state by turning your thinking toward the silver linings in your shitty situations. And? Has it actually worked for anyone here? Like ...even a little?

I heard that affirmations once cured a man in Belgium in 1973. But is this really the work to be done when you feel like crap? Let's be realistic. Just shifting to telling yourself positive things when you are juggling balls labelled "despair," "trauma," "anxiety," "self-loathing," and, "thoughts of death," well, saying positive things like "This last year of isolation has been a great opportunity to focus on lifestyle changes and tweak my diet," or "at least I have not yet been infected with COVID-19 and that's a real benefit of being isolated for well over a year," —yeah, that's not going to cut it.

Here's my best guess about your experience of positive thinking: it may feel appealing, the simplicity of it is really elegant, but when the rubber hits the road you have not been successful in making this strategy really stick. As in, when you put your mind to it, you can make it work for, say, maybe 5 minutes, or maybe 10 or 15, but then it all kind of goes back to crappy thinking and total shit moods.

So why is just turning your frown upside down not effective for most people who are experiencing emotional suffering?

It's a real thing. A phenomenon of human cognition that has been researched and proven to be the real deal. It's called MOOD-CONGRUENT PROCESSING. This phenomenon means that once you are in a bad mood it's hard to shift out of that mood. This is essentially because you already have a network of bad-mood-related thoughts all networked together and ready to go in your brain because you've been hanging out in that mood for a while. In other words, it is easiest to generate thoughts and remember facts that are in alignment with your poor mood, compared to thinking or remembering facts that have a different emotional tone.

Here it is in a highly professional diagram:

This diagram shows that a bunch of Lousy Thoughts are connected through a common theme, the Bad Mood. It's easy to get to these thoughts from the Bad Mood. They are RIGHT THERE, and are ready to be thought about. You'll see that there is also a positive thought in the brain, but it's miles away, effortful to get to, and the connection is very weak.

Realistically, there are quite a number of networks of thoughts in our brains. Our brains are amazing thinking machines, and the primary organization of advanced thinking and reasoning is in these meaningfully-related cognitive networks. This picture is what my past clients have lovingly dubbed, "The Sputnik Diagram." The Sputnik diagram illustrates the primary problem with mood congruent processing, which is: the mood state we might prefer (positive mood) is not naturally already connected to the mood state we feel stuck in (bad mood). THIS is the problem. There is not a pathway to move directly from the negative mood network to the positive mood network.

So what happens when we try to "force" this movement from the Bad Mood network to the Positive Mood network? Why doesn't it actually work? Why can't you just park yourself there and refuse to move, like you're doing a Positive Mood sit-in?

The answer is that our brains also have built-in mechanisms that make it easiest to think thoughts that are closely aligned with things that we have already been thinking. This happens either through a phenomenon called "Priming," or a phenomenon called "Automatization."

Both of these phenomena are natural and good adaptations that our advanced thinking and reasoning parts of our brains do in order to try to help up adapt to patterns in our lives, and to be really quick and efficient thinkers. These have been helpful to us overall, in becoming very advanced in our use of learning, thinking, and problem-solving to survive as a species; however, when it comes to priming and automatization, our brains basically just operate on physical principles and they don't know if they are helping us stay in a positive or a negative network of thinking.

Basically what this means is that we can accidentally reinforce the "stuckness" of a negative mood, simply by thinking negative thoughts with enough frequency that our brains think that this must just be the thing to do. Similar to how repeating patterns of effortfully tilting your hips and raising your leg and leaning forward to start to walk helped you learn to just walk forward whenever you want to, without really having to think about your skeleton or your muscles, thoughts can also be automated, without our awareness, consent, or knowledge, and they can "run" in the backgrounds of our minds. This is fantastic if things that get automated are adaptive things, like self-esteem-boosting thoughts, or being able to flip a pancake without ruining it, but, this is more tricky if what happens, instead, is automating a series of lousy thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world (resulting in an even worse, or a lingering, Bad Mood).

So, if you're in a Bad Mood, and you were just thinking a Very Lousy thought, and with some intention and effort, you give yourself a positive affirmation, here's the next step in the illustration. You very effortfully make a Lovely Thought happen, but nothing else in the Positive Mood network is really online and ready to be entertain. Instead, because all of the Bad Mood network is activated and ready to go, and running on auto-pilot in the background, the Lovely Thought is rejected. It is too incongruent, or simply just to different from the thoughts that are currently "on tap," to be able to hold onto.

You really don't FEEL this thought, so your brain says, "Nuh-uh. That's not true."

Oh dear.

Next, your brain says, "Here is what I think is really true - this is what feels right to me," because the Bad Mood network is already up and running and primed for more thinking. Then the brain takes you back to the thought that FEELS more true (even if it's not factually true). Remember, the Bad Mood network has been in operation for a while, and it runs on a meaningfully connected thread of FEELING, not facts. So it tells you that the positive thought is crap, and actually REINFORCES the negative mood state. You end up thinking about why the positive thought is not true, which just adds more fuel to the Bad Mood fire.

Worse even still, if you do this over and over, your brain will recognize a pattern, and then generate some more stable neural connections that will react to positive thoughts by disputing them and settling back into the Bad Mood camp. This can even be automated over time, just like walking, and happen outside of your conscious awareness.

So, if you've ever thought that positive thoughts don't work, or, if you have found yourself feeling deficient or less-than others because you haven't been able to get those affirmations to cure your anxiety or your depression, I just want to say, there is nothing wrong with you. Positive thinking can be lovely to engage in to maintain a good mood, or for a little tweak to optimize your mental energy, as a feel-good booster, or a reminder to consider your thinking options as you move through your days, but it's not the thing to do when you are in a legitimately troubled mood. If you have something serious going on, such as grief or loss, trauma non-recovery, or you have been through very stressful life events that feel like they have changed you, odds are your brain is working perfectly well, as it is designed to do, and you just need some expert support. In these cases, Positive Thinking is not the thing you need.

This is simply why, when you are feeling particularly badly, it is important to see a licensed health care professional for help, instead of an "armchair psychologist" or someone who doesn't have the deeper-level skills or understanding to get you out of this mood state.

No amount of warm baths, deep breathing, vitamins, yoga, or positive thinking will really change your mood disorder. Just like you'd pick the right kind of doctor for the right kind of problem if you are seeking medical care (e.g., optimally, you don't ask a chiropractor to deliver your baby or a dermatologist to treat your heartburn), you are well-advised to seek out a mental health professional who has advanced training and experience in the use of established and effective principles, including therapy aimed at helping you change your thinking, to change your mood.

Working with a licensed mental health care provider such as a Clinical Psychologist or Registered Psychotherapist can help you to use the right expertise and knowledge about how your brain naturally functions, and what is more effective in these circumstances, to make sure that you do not fall into this relatively easy trap of accidentally reinforcing your bad mood.

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