Can positive thinking really improve your health? Our Activities Department and many researchers say that it absolutely can.

Taking an optimistic view of life can strengthen your relationships, improve your coping ability and keep you in good health. Getting the brain to stop focusing on negative thoughts can be challenging, but it’s absolutely possible. The first step is learning how to spot your negative thought patterns and replace them with positive thoughts.

According to research, having a positive, optimistic outlook can lower levels of inflammation and heart disease risk. Having a positive outlook about aging can also reduce the risk of dementia in older adults according to a study done at Yale. Training your brain to focus on the positive causes less stress throughout your day, according to David Burns, MD, a psychologist and an adjunct clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the author of The Feeling Good Handbook.

Spotting Negative Thoughts

According to Dr. Burns, Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to identify thoughts and find alternative (positive) approaches. Ten thought distortions that may lead to negative thinking and depression:

  1. Black and white thinking or thinking in terms of absolutes such as “always or never” or “all or nothing”
  2. Overgeneralizing one mistake or bad outcome into a lifelong pattern, also called “catastrophizing”
  3. Focusing on bad aspects instead of good aspects of events
  4. Ignoring the positives and giving negatives too much weight
  5. Making assumptions, both about people and the future
  6. Minimizing or magnifying issues
  7. Reasoning by emotion, such as saying, “I don’t feel good about that person, so she must be awful.”
  8. “Should” statements, such as: “By now I should be rich.”
  9. Negative self-labeling or name-calling, such as, “I’m an idiot.”
  10. Blaming or personalizing and overlooking shared responsibility for situations or events

Ways to get your brain on the right track

The only way to really expand any skill is to practice and build habits that reinforce that behavior. In order to become more positive, you should focus on doing activities that can help focus on these emotions. Meditation, journaling, practicing daily gratitude, and surrounding yourself with positive people are all ways to actively change your thinking.

“Positive Thinking” at the Hilltop Campus

About 10 years ago Denise Reilly attended a Social Work & Activities Conference with then UMH Social Worker, Aaron Ampulla. After attending a seminar that focused on coping skills for people transitioning into long or short term care, the two decided that they were going to create some type of program at the Hilltop Campus that addressed this very common issue. The “Positive Thinking” group started at James G. Johnston (JGJ) and since has been expanded to all of Hilltop under the direction of Faye Clark, Activities Director.

The goal of the Positive Thinking group is not only to keep residents in high spirits and focusing on the joys of life, but also to make sure that residents have a safe space to open up and express how they’re feeling. “I feel like the residents attending the group now are getting a lot out of it. They’re forming relationships and spending time together outside of the group meetings. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for people to go from living in their own home to living in a nursing home with strangers, so we do everything we can to make it easier for them.”, said Denise.

Both groups meet regularly to complete a variety of activities that keep them focused on having a positive attitude about aging and their day-to-day lives. Some of the group favorites have been planting spider plants for residents to talk to and care for, learning about and practicing breathing and mindfulness exercises, reading inspiring stories, and having guest speakers attend the class. Denise and Faye both strive to keep things fresh for the groups. “I try to keep it real and very honest. I want the residents to feel comfortable enough to be able to speak freely and know that I really care about them and what they have to say.”, Denise explained.

At every group meeting, they share their daily gratitudes, big and small, as well as watch videos about how positive thinking and showing gratitude can have an impact on our lives. Gale, a current group member, has been working hard on trying to be more positive and acceptant in her daily life. She said that the group really helps her stay focused on that personal goal of hers. She admitted that some days are harder than others to get herself thinking positively, but when she goes to the group, it helps her mind get back on the right track. Gale explained that she’s always been a worrier, but she knows that the old saying is true… “Worrying is like a rocking chair–you can move all day but you don’t get anywhere.”

The group of residents realized that they’re not alone in the daily battle to stay positive. They discussed the fact that caregivers and other employees at UMH are taking care of residents, helping them, and solving their problems all day on top of what might be going on in their personal lives. The group decided that they needed to do something about it, which is why they’re now making an effort to spread the good vibes throughout the campus. The residents started writing “Thank You” notes and making bulletin board posts with positive quotes for anyone to take who may be in need of a little “pick-me-up”.  The most recent project that the group is working on is creating t-shirts to help spread good vibes and smiles around the campus.

The Positive Thinking program has truly been a huge success and continues to gain velocity with residents and staff as far as involvement and participation.  The group continues to grow successfully helping to promote positive thinking, positive action, and an overall positive environment. Anyone interested in learning more about the program or how they can assist with the program may contact Faye Clark.