What if you could change a bad day, make it better immediately, by simply choosing different thoughts? Sound magical or too good to be true? The notion of “reframing” experiences—or choosing a better way to think about them—is not new.
Reframing finds its roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of counseling that allows patients to change certain thoughts and patterns of behavior. CBT is used to treat a variety of problems that include stress and depression, along with anxiety and panic disorders. It can also be used to treat health issues such as eating disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pain.
Though CBT can help to treat serious disorders, reframing can help anyone identify unhelpful thought patterns and substitute them with healthier alternatives.
Here are some examples of unhelpful thought patterns that most people experience from time to time, and ways that you can reframe them for a healthier inner experience:
This happens when one negative situation occurs and you enlarge it. For example, you’re running late to work in the morning. Though you’d like to drive in the left lane on the freeway to bypass slower traffic, a large truck is in front of you and traveling at an unhurried pace. You say to yourself, “This always happens. I’m never able to get to work on time with these Sunday drivers.”
To reframe the experience, you might say to yourself instead, "This doesn't happen all the time. I usually leave the house much earlier, and when I do, I’m on time. I’ll just call my office and let them know I’ll be a little late. It’s no big deal.”
Do you minimize your good work or attributes? Instead of celebrating your accomplishments, or acknowledging when you’ve been under a lot of pressure, do you turn up the heat even more? Say you’ve just started training for a 10K and after two weeks, you can only run a mile and a half. You bemoan the amount of training ahead of you, saying, “I could do more," or "Someone else could have done it better than I did” These are minimizing responses.
To reframe the experience, you might say to yourself, “Training for a race isn’t easy. In only two weeks, I can run longer than I’ve run in years. It takes determination and discipline to do this. I’m just getting started.”
This happens when you make assumptions or create a story about someone or something you know nothing about. If, for example, your best friend forgets to call you over the weekend after agreeing to go to dinner and a movie, do you assume that she is angry about something? Or just insensitive?
To reframe the situation, you could choose a kinder response. "I’m not sure what has happened to her this weekend. She may have forgotten, or had something important come up. I’ll give her a day and then check in with her to see if she’s okay.”
Do you decide what will happen before giving something a try? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to learn how to ballroom dance, but you’ve never taken a class before. “Everyone will be better at it than I am,” or “I probably won’t be asked to dance, and I don’t have a partner to take the class with.”
To reframe the experience, you might say instead, "I have no idea what class will be like. I’m sure there are beginners like me, and I could take a few classes to see if I enjoy it.”
Feeling sorry for yourself repeatedly is another unhelpful thought pattern. Perhaps you don’t feel appreciated for all of the work you’ve put into your child’s school fundraiser. You might find yourself saying things like, “No one sees or appreciates the work I do. It’s all take and no give.”
To reframe this experience, you might focus on the importance of the task itself and pat yourself on the back for how much you’ve contributed to the effort. “Supporting my child’s education is one of the most important things I will do in my life. I'm doing a good job, even when others don’t tell me so. If I need to accept less responsibility, I can do that too.”
This happens when you don’t care for yourself in the most elemental ways. You may say to yourself, “I don't have time to prepare a healthy lunch for myself today,” or “It’s impossible for me to fit in a walk with my sister this week; I have too much work to do.”
To reframe this experience, you can make yourself a priority—in your day and your thoughts. You could say to yourself, “I can find the time on the nights before work to make myself healthy lunches,” or “I deserve to have some time to connect with my sister during the week. When I take the time to walk with her, I feel better and give more to everyone else in my life.”
The way you talk to yourself affects the perspective you hold of the world. Take a minute to listen to the thoughts you tell yourself, and if necessary, reframe them for a richer, more satisfying day.
Reframing your thoughts is not a substitute for treating depression or more serious mental health concerns. If you or someone you know needs the assistance of a licensed psychologist, call your primary care physician for a referral. If you don’t have a primary care doctor, visit /doctors for a referral.
This article first appeared in the December 2015 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.