Positive thinking is in vogue. With self-help books, motivational speakers, and meditation apps touting the power of positive thinking, you may wonder if there’s something to the “can do” attitude. Does positive thinking really help you when it counts? Learning to think positively may be more important than you might think, especially when you are working toward lofty goals and changes for someone who is in treatment for substance addiction. Some people get their positive mindsets from things like inspirational quotes, empowering music, or even from speeches from videos featured on YouTube.
However, the problem with inspiration is that it’s fleeting. After seeing an inspiring photo on Instagram, the fuzzy feelings will begin to wear off after 10 minutes, and it won’t mean much when you are in the trenches of resisting relapse. Instead, learning how to think positively can arm you to overcome thoughts that may otherwise encourage you to give up or give in.
What is positive thinking exactly?
Before you consider the benefits of positive thinking in addiction treatment, it’s first important to look at what the term positive thinking actually means in psychology. Psychology professors Michael Scheier and Charles Carver extensively studied the power of positive thinking and wrote a paper in 1993 that described how positive thinking is characterized in psychology.
They said, “…positive thinking in some way involves holding positive expectancies for one’s future.” They go on to point out that expectancies affect behavior, and that your expectations greatly influence your behavior. People tend not to do things when they truly believe they will have a bad outcome.
Expecting positive things that will come from your actions won’t necessarily help you achieve success the first time. However, it can help you persist when things don’t go your way. When treatment is harder than expected when cravings linger after treatment, and if you have to dust yourself off and try again after a relapse, thinking positively that you can achieve lasting recovery can help you keep moving toward your goal.
In a way, thinking positively is a big part of the cognitive-behavioral model that’s one of the most common types of treatment used in addiction rehab facilities all over the world. Psychology professor Alan Marlatt developed a relapse prevention model that shows the different paths you can take when presented with what he called a “high-risk situation,” or a situation that challenges a person’s commitment to a behavioral change.
In recovery, a high-risk situation could be someone offering you a drink or having a craving after a stressful day at work. A relapse doesn’t start the moment you decide to take a drink or drug; instead, it starts with your response to a high-risk situation. Depending on the situation you’re in, positivity can go a long way in helping you respond in a way that prevents relapse.
In fact, negative emotional states represent the highest rate of relapse, according to Marlatt. Anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, and boredom can often be triggered by negative thinking or a negative response to a challenge in your life.
Effective coping skills
Coping is your response to a high-risk situation, whether good or bad. According to Marlatt, your coping response to a high-risk situation is a critical factor in determining the outcome. For instance, if you come home after a long day at work and feel the urge to drink to relieve stress, an ineffective coping response might be to tell yourself that you are too stressed out to resist the urge. Negative thinking leads to poor coping skills and a decrease in self-efficacy, or your level of self-control in high-risk situations.
Positive thinking may facilitate more effective coping skills and lead to a better outcome. As an example, imagine you are at a party, and someone offers you a drink. That would be considered a very high-risk situation. Processing the situation by thinking, “I don’t need or want a drink. I’ve resisted before and I can resist again,” may be a more positive coping strategy. Your resolve is strengthened by a rise in self-efficacy.
Not giving into “stinkin’ thinkin’”
Stinkin’ thinkin’ is a colloquial psychological term used to describe thoughts that lead you to believe something bad will happen, you will fail, or that you are generally a bad person. In other words, it’s a specific kind of negative thinking that causes stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem. One example of stinkin’ thinkin’ is something called catastrophizing, and it also happens to be a clear example of negative thinking. Catastrophizing is assuming disastrous consequences will come out of one, relatively small bad experience.
For instance, if you are late to work, catastrophizing would be to assume your boss will fire you, you’ll fail to make rent payments, and then you’ll be homeless. In your mind, one moment you’re five minutes late, and the next, you’re living on the streets. Stinkin’ thinkin’ increases stress, anxiety, and depression, and lowers your self-efficacy.
Positive thinking can help you avoid stinkin’ thinkin’ when a situation triggers negative thoughts. If you employ positive thinking when you are late to work, five minutes late may be just that. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be fired and there is nothing to suggest that it means you will be homeless.
Can positive thinking ever be bad?
If positive thinking influences relapse prevention in such an advantageous way, is there any drawback to this kind of optimism? Well, it’s important to note that positive thinking alone may not always lead to positive results in recovery.
In fact, if positive thinking means thinking that your actions will have positive outcomes, there is at least one clear example of an adverse effect of positive thinking. Positive outcome expectancies of negative behavior can actually lead to relapse in some cases. Marlatt notes that some drinkers have positive outcome expectancies for their drinking, failing to see the potential negative consequences.
In the party scenario, when someone offers you a drink, negative positivity (if you’ll excuse the oxymoron) would be thinking, “I can have one drink, and everything will be fine. I won’t go into a full relapse.” Some people in recovery report having positive outcome expectancies about trying a different drug, because it wasn’t their drug of choice when they became addicted. It’s important to have realistic expectations and a positive outlook.
Positive thinking can be a vital tool for addiction treatment and recovery, but it’s not a replacement for treatment. If it’s not used wisely, it can even contribute to relapse. The world isn’t sunshine and rainbows. You’ll have to live life on life’s terms, and that may mean you’ll experience stress and disappointments. But positivity means realizing that you are capable of overcoming challenges, not living as if there will never be challenges.
Do you need help?
Maintaining a positive outlook is no easy task, especially when battling an addiction. But that’s where The Palm Beach Institute comes into play. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or dependence, call us at The Palm Beach Institute at (866) 804-6507 to learn more about your addiction treatment options. You also can contact us online to speak with a call representative to learn what treatment methods work best for you.