Negative thoughts can be all-consuming and hugely detrimental to our mental and physical health. Whether you find yourself unable to sleep due to worrying about situations beyond your control or find that you simply don’t have time to unwind, by following a few simple steps, you can start your journey to positive thinking.
After being diagnosed with an immunological condition, award-winning freelance journalist Helen Gilbert started her blog, Relax Ya Self To Health (listed by Vuelio in 2017 and 2018 as one of its Top 10 UK Mental Health Blogs), in 2017. Her inspiring blog focuses on health and wellbeing and motivates readers with ways to relax, unwind and practice positive thinking to improve their mental health. “The aim was to learn how to slow down – something I’m terrible at – and get to the bottom of a mysterious illness which hit me out of nowhere and doctors struggled to identify,” said Helen. “After two and a half years of research and visits to numerous specialists, I was recently given a diagnosis of Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.
“I’ve always been a sporty and highly energetic character but at the end of 2015/2016, my health fell apart overnight. Looking back, I was operating in a perpetual state of stress although I didn’t realise it at the time. Back in 2009, I’d bought a house on a busy cut-through road and the traffic noise drove me mad. As stupid as it sounds, I never relaxed at home and would feel on edge as soon as I walked through the door. Instead of sitting in the lounge, I’d head straight to the gym to do high energy exercise classes like spin or HIIT, go running or play tennis. I couldn’t afford to move again and put up with it for 6.5 years. On top of that, I was juggling the day job working as a freelance journalist – something I’ve done for almost 20 years – covering section editors in busy national and business title newsrooms.
“When my health fell apart I was forced to take stock of my lifestyle. I also became incredibly anxious because, at the time, doctors couldn’t tell me why I was having life-threatening reactions and at one point they were happening every day. I’d always been fiercely independent but here I was, at 40, forced to sell my home and move back in with my parents. That’s when the negative thoughts began.
“I started reading self-help books, finding hope in inspirational quotes and investigated meditation and other ways to calm my mind and stop my thoughts spiralling out of control. I’d been wanting to launch a blog for a while, so I focused on that too. I’ve also found great solace in books written by the late Louise Hay.”
Reminding yourself of what you’re thankful for is a great way to encourage positive thinking and is one of Helen Gilbert’s top tips for positive thinking: “Every night I make a list of 10 things I’m grateful for – no matter how small. It really helps to re-frame my mind and remind me of how lucky I am. It could be anything from being in my own bed (rather than on a hospital trolley) to reintroducing mango to my diet and being thankful for my emergency meds.”
If you find that you struggle to get to sleep because you can’t switch off, try sitting down with a pen and paper and making a list of the things you have to do that might be causing you to feel stressed. This could be anything from making that phone call you’ve been putting off, booking a dentist appointment or searching for a new job. By allocating time to write down your negative or stressful thoughts into a to-do list, you’re one step closer to getting organised. Now everything is written down in one place and you can begin to work through your list.
While social media has become an intrinsic part of our daily lives, it can be the cause of negative thoughts. If you consider for a moment how much information you are absorbing while scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, it’s inevitable that you’re going to read something that triggers a negative emotion. Perhaps it’s a news story or an update from friends going to a party that you regret not going to. All of these seemingly small snippets of information can unconsciously cause a huge amount of stress and anxiety.
Try to make a conscious effort not to check your phone as often. According to a 2017 survey, the average Brit checks their phone 28 times a day. This equates to at least once an hour and a staggering 10,000 times a year. In October 2018, YouGov data revealed 55% of Brits check their phones during dinner. If you’d like to get a better understanding of how often you’re using your phone, when and what for, try Screen Time for iOS.
If you regularly check your phone first thing in the morning, this is a good place to start switching things up. Perhaps you use your phone as an alarm clock, and this is causing the temptation to check your social media. Try buying a separate alarm clock to get out of the routine. When dining out, or even just eating at home, leave your phone in another room. Alternatively, try deleting all social media apps from your phone and only accessing them when you’re on a tablet or computer. Even switching off your notifications can help. These small changes will mean a gradual but important reduction in the use of social media and can work wonders to boost positive thinking.
Thinking about negative things that have happened in the past or what might happen in the future is a great source of anxiety for many people, and admittedly, focusing on the present is a challenge. But it is well worth the effort trying to focus on the present to avoid any unnecessary worrying. Helen shared her own experience: “I began panicking about the future. Would I ever live independently again? Would my foot ever recover? Would my health continue to deteriorate? Those thoughts were overwhelming. Eventually, I realised that I was worrying about situations that might not even occur and managed to teach myself to focus on the present moment through guided meditation apps like Headspace and Calm.”
Perhaps you experienced heartbreak through the loss of a loved one, or a break-up, or are stressed about what might happen in the future such as losing a job or having to move to a new house. These are completely justifiable concerns, but they can take up a lot of our energy when we could be focusing on the here and now. Practising mindfulness like Helen is an excellent way to stay focused on the present. Through meditation, mindfulness allows you to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you are doing, without the distractions of what’s happening around you. This beginner’s guide by Mindful is a handy tool to get started.
When you’re feeling stressed, trying to put situations into perspective can be difficult. This often means we allow smaller issue to overshadow potentially positive changes. Try and find the positive in every situation. Helen said: “This is easier said than done and takes practice but now when something doesn’t quite go to plan, I try and look at the bigger picture and think it’s probably leading me to a better place.”
Many of us lead such busy lives that we forget to take time out solely for ourselves. Setting aside time to unwind and do something you enjoy is so important. Whether that’s curling up with a book, watching your favourite film, or even cooking yourself your favourite meal, it’s important to practice self-care and make yourself feel special. If you’d like some quality ‘me’ time without having to plan anything yourself, booking a spa day is an excellent way to treat yourself and de-stress.
For more helpful advice from Helen Gilbert, read her blog post ’20 ways to relieve stress’.