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What You Think Affects How You Feel

Dr. Deborah Cohen, School Counselor

Over the last several months, I’ve been talking to the Middle School students about the relationship between what you think (i.e., your thoughts, cognitions) and how you feel. When you think about this idea and hear a couple of examples, it makes so much sense! However, it might not be intuitive to children or even to adults. The point I am hoping to make with our students is that what you think directly impacts how you feel and you can exercise some control over it.

For example, if you think, “I couldn’t get any of the math problems right. I’m a failure. I will never be a good math student,” you will likely feel frustration, sadness, and maybe even helplessness and hopelessness. On the other hand, if you think, “these math problems are hard. I may have to work at it, but I know I will get it eventually,” you will likely feel less discouraged, more hopeful, and will be more likely to keep working at math.

Scientists believe that humans suffer from a “negativity bias” that is a byproduct of evolution. That is to say, in caveman days, the cave people who were looking around every corner for problems, were more likely to identify and deal with threats and thus, were more likely to survive. As a result, modern people have inherited the tendency to think negatively and evaluate our environments, or our circumstances, more negatively than they actually are. One trick to combatting this negativity bias is to become aware of the thoughts that precede a negative feeling. Then, go back and tweak the thought so that it is more realistic, more positive, and ultimately more helpful. This is a technique that can benefit us all – even young children.

As a note of interest, this technique is the basis for cognitive-behavioral therapy, an extremely effective treatment for a variety of anxiety and mood disorders. Even people without diagnosable anxiety or depression will benefit from tweaking their thoughts to be more positive and realistic. Consistent positive-thinking helps to create an optimistic life outlook and protects against depression and anxiety. So, the next time you or your child are experiencing negative emotions, I encourage you to examine the thoughts that precede it and ask yourself, “is that really true? How can I reframe this thought more positively?” and see if you can lessen the impact of stress or a bad mood.

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