Why Thinking Positive Isn't Always Enough to Create Life Change

Thinking positive thoughts is a powerful ally against depression, negative life events, and other forces that rob you of joy.  It can take you farther than negative thinking, but it isn’t enough on its own to create sustained life change.  The circumstances most people face every day can be too difficult to be overcome with thoughts alone.

woman outside

Negative thoughts can be a symptom of something else entirely - not just negativity.  Just like a fever can be a symptom of an acute bacterial infection, negative thinking is a symptom of a nagging, unsolved life situation.  

Thinking positive thoughts addresses the negative thoughts spawning from the something real and complicated in a person's life.  Just like Acetaminophen addresses the fever created by an infection. Acetaminophen will not cure the infection, and positive thinking alone will not solve a life situation that is a catalyst for negative thinking.

A raging bacterial infection may need to be treated with antibiotics before the fever will go away.  And a soul-crushing life situation may need to be addressed with courageous action before the negative thoughts associated with it will stop.  

However, fever itself can be very dangerous, so Acetaminophen serves a purpose in relieving it.  Negative thoughts are also uncomfortable and can be dangerous when they are at a sustained high level.

It Takes More Than Thinking Positive

Behavioral health experts say that sustained negative thinking can contribute to depression and increase the risk of poor behavioral choices aimed at escaping the pain of persistent negative thoughts.  Some of these poor behavioral choices may include substance abuse, self-harm (cutting), or even suicide. 

As a counselor, one of the first things I want to do to help a person suffering from negative thinking is teach them some techniques to bring the negative thoughts to a halt, and replace them with more accurate, and typically more positive, thoughts. 

But treatment cannot stop there. 

Thinking positive plus courageous and deliberate action will go a long way toward changing a life situation that is generating negative thoughts.  Positivity without action is only a bandage for most significant life problems.

Jane's Story - Fiction, but Typical

Let's use Jane as an example. **

Jane is having trouble at work and in her marriage.  She isn't sure why things aren't going the way she wants.  Jane regularly drinks wine to relax.  She also takes an anti-anxiety medication prescribed by her doctor, usually more than the prescribed amount. 

She knows she is not supposed consume alcohol while on her medication.

Jane agrees to see a mental health professional, and explains that her boss has it in for her.  She also reveals that her husband has grown distant, and they don't have much in common anymore.

Most of the time, on most days, she has thoughts about getting fired, her husband asking for a divorce, and wonders if her drinking has something to do with these fears.  Thinking positive thoughts is not easy for her.

Jane doesn't understand why everyone makes a big deal of her drinking.  She reasons that she only drinks about two bottles of wine per night. 

Her boss has given numerous warnings about her tardiness and frequent, unexplained absences on Mondays.  With the most recent warning came the news that she would be fired if she were late again or absent without a doctor's excuse. 

Her husband has begged her to seek counseling, drink less, and take her medication only as prescribed.  Jane has tried to cut back, and even quit both the drinking and medication abuse.  But her efforts never lasted for more than a couple days each time.

Jane is 4’11" and weighs 90 pounds.  Multiple bottles of wine each day is a lot for someone Jane size.  Actually, it is a lot for anyone.  Couple that with drinking while taking a prescription anxiety medication, and you have a much more complicated, and possibly life-threatening, problem.  

A licensed clinician could teach Jane to think more positive thoughts, but thinking positive alone would not address the root of Jane issue.  Her troubling, fear-provoking thoughts about her marriage and work life seem to be accurate, and not unfounded pessimism.

An active addictive disease process is at work in Jane's life.  Her thoughts about looming job loss, marital discord, and whether her drinking could have something to do with her troubles are not really what I would call negative thinking.  I would call these thoughts warning bells or innate wisdom’s cry for help.

My character, Jane, has a substance abuse problem.  And that problem is impacting more than one area of her life in pretty significant ways.  Despite experiencing negative consequences from her behavior, Jane has been unable to stop drinking and abusing prescription medication on her own.  

Add Some Positive Action

Feeling Better

There are more than a few counseling techniques a licensed mental health professional might use to help Jane face what she is admitting to.  But thinking positive, as a sole method of healing, is not a successful approach to halting addiction. 

More commonly, a therapist familiar with addiction may be able to help Jane come to her own decision that her life is unmanageable given her level of substance use.  Together, they might explore practical action Jane could take to restore manageability to her life.  This would include certain steps that have helped many men and women recover from addiction.

Recovery from disease is complex and multifaceted.  There are usually solutions available to help people find peace and freedom in their life again, but the solutions typically require a great deal of commitment to thoroughly examine and change many aspects of the sufferers life.  Including thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs. 

Thinking positive thoughts is part of recovery from addiction; however, it is generally not sufficient on its own to create lasting behavioral change in such a serious condition.  Life change is more likely to result from positive thinking combined with a practical program of action that addresses the whole person. 

 **  Mental health professionals are required to keep what their clients tell them confidential.  Confidentiality of what a client tells their counselor must be maintained except in certain well-defined situations that mostly involve the welfare of the client or others  (child abuse is an example). 
 For writing convenience, and clarity, I created a character named Jane.  She is a fictitious character; therefore, she is not based on anyone I know now or have known in the past.  Jane was made up as I wrote this, so any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and without intention.  The fictitious character, Jane, represents a constellation of typical situations both counselors and their clients face on a daily basis.

Do You Need Help?

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, there is help.  Many licensed mental health professionals are well-versed in helping people on their journey to recovery.  There are also free support groups that offer assistance for family members and substance abusers.

Al-anon is a support group for friends and family members of substance abusers.  They can be found at http://al-anon.org/ or by calling (888) 425-2666.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women recovering from addiction to alcohol.  The only requirement for membership is a desire to do something about your drinking.  They can be found at www.AA.org.  There is a local meeting finder on the website and groups can be found practically everywhere.

Narcotics Anonymous is a fellowship similar to AA that focuses on recovery from drug use, both illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs.  Groups are sometimes less prevalent than AA, but they are widespread.  They can be found at www.NA.org.
There are also many quality mental health professionals available to assist family and friends as well as substance abusers themselves.  One service I recommend is Breakthrough.com.  Through Breakthrough, you can find a vetted counselor in your state that uses tele-counseling to provide care, and research if this type of counseling is right for you.   

I am a Breakthrough provider in Georgia, working with adult Georgia residents.  You can find my profile here.