Want to know how to think like an optimist? One of the downsides of having a mind is that sometimes bad thoughts get stuck in it. This could involve a mistake at work, money worries or perhaps even a fear and these thoughts can prove very difficult to control. The most obvious method for dealing with it is using thought suppression: we try to push it out of our minds.

Unfortunately, as many studies have shown, thought suppression doesn’t work. Ironically, trying to push thoughts out of mind only makes them come back stronger. It’s a very frustrating finding, but one that’s been replicated experimentally again and again. Try not to think of pink elephants and we see them leaping in front of us unbidden.

This negative or pessimistic thinking affects our health, our relationships, our work and ultimately our longevity. So its important to get right. Here are some ideas to conquer your worries fears and negative thoughts.

  1. Distraction

Distraction works. Read a book, go for a run talk on the phone. The natural tendency when trying to get your mind off, say, a social gaff you made, is to try and think about something else: to distract yourself. The mind wanders around looking for new things to focus on, hopefully leaving you in peace. Distraction does work but, oddly enough, studies suggest it is better to distract yourself with one thing, rather than letting the mind wander.

It’s better to concentrate on, say, a specific piece of music, a TV programme or a task. The more active the better. And remember everything seems better in the morning.

  1. Avoid stress

Learn the skills of relaxation. When we are relaxed we are more positive about ourselves and those around us. And achieving a more relaxed lifestyle adds years to our lives. 7 years a recent study revealed. HJ Eysenck some 20 years ago declared that 6 sessions of relaxation could add 7 to 10 years on to peoples lives. He was berated but now has been proved to be correct.

  1. Postpone the thought until later

Postponing a thought and telling ourselves we can deal with it later can work. When I sang in operas I would worry constantly weeks in advance. I started to minimize these thoughts by imaging a large brush sweeping the leaves of my anxiety to one side to be worried about later- next week, then the day before singing, then during the piece on stage. Eventually I stopped worrying in advance.

So save up all your worrying for a designated period and this may ease your mind the rest of the time.

  1. Paradoxical thinking

What if, instead of trying to suppress a worrying repetitive thought about, say, a job loss, you head straight for it and concentrate on it?

It seems paradoxical that focusing in on a thought might help it go away, but some research suggests this can work. It is based on sound psychological principles. If you confront the worst possible outcome and then ask yourself how you would handle that then eventually you see that you would have a plan to cope.

Existential psychologist Rollo May wrote about paradoxical intention. A patient of his was terrified that she might throw a brick through a shop window and had stopped leaving home as a result. He took her to a large department store and handed her a brick. She didn’t throw it and her obsessive thinking disappeared.

Facing stuff head on then coping works.

    5. Self-affirmation

Self-affirmation is also helpful. It involves thinking about your positive traits and beliefs and has been found to increase social confidence and self-control, amongst other benefits. You may want to write down all the good things that are happening in your life from the cup of Starbucks in the morning to the friends you have around you.

   6.Write stuff down

Writing emotionally about yourself, then, may help to reduce recurrent unwanted thoughts. If thoughts are circling in your head as they tend to do in the early hours of the morning, write them down. There is something gloriously therapeutic about committing thoughts to paper. There are many reasons for this:

  1. They leave your mind, so you can then go to sleep
  2. They always look more manageable on a page
  3. You can act on them in the morning – if you can read them
  4. You can ask yourself- can I solve this problem or do I emotionally cope
  5. Remember thoughts are not facts. You can change them

Martin Seligman author of Learned OptimismMartin Seligman author of Learned Optimism and prime researcher of how we think states

“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think”


To hear Ros Taylor discuss this with Kaye Adams click here and go to 1.36