Thoughts are powerful influencers, and our internal dialogue can have a strong effect on our mood. At the latest Speaker Series event – Maintaining Wellness When Dealing With Stress and Anxiety – psychiatrist Dr. Joanne Leung-Yee talked about strategies to get into a more positive headspace.
Specifically, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) strategies to help manage anxiety and stress. CBT is a form of talk therapy that focuses on shifting inaccurate negative thoughts in order to influence a person’s attitudes and behaviours. CBT is normally done with a mental health professional over several months, but Dr. Leung-Yee says there are some principles around this approach that can help us optimize a positive outlook every day.
“In a nutshell cognitive behavioural therapy teaches us that our feelings can be influenced by our thoughts and our behaviours,” she says. “And it’s much easier to change our thoughts and behaviours than it is to change the way we feel.”
Case in point: if you’ve ever felt anxious and had someone suggest that you “just stop worrying”, you know that’s not helpful. “While the sentiment is nice, it doesn’t really work,” says Dr. Leung-Yee. “What does work is changing how we look at a situation to shift how we react to it.”
Dr. Leung-Yee remembers being at a dinner party, where there was a beautiful fruit display on the buffet table. She reached for a grape, and then realized the one she had picked was actually artificial. “At first I felt really horrible for having destroyed this decorative piece. Then my partner looked at me and said he almost did the same thing because the fruit looked so real!” She says depending on her perspective, she could have felt embarrassed, stressed, amused or even angry with the host for placing fake fruit next to real food. “The situation is the same, but the feelings for each reaction are very different.”
Another tip is to try what she calls “mood protecting activities” to combat stress and anxiety. These can encompass a broad range, and it’s really about finding what works for you. Fun activities, like listening to music or watching a movie, can be very effective, but so can completing more onerous tasks, like finally getting your taxes done. For some, helping others through outreach like volunteering works really well. And she says learning a new skill, like a new language or hobby, can be a great strategy to boosting and protecting your mood.
Some other tips? Stay physically active, she says. When we’re feeling low or anxious, it’s natural to protect ourselves by shutting down, but that can have harmful effects in the long term. Rather than giving negative thoughts a space to breed, move your body. Importantly, that doesn’t always mean doing a formal workout. Dr. Leung-Yee says any physical movement that is out of your normal routine – like doing a silly dance or jumping around to an upbeat song – can help you feel different and break you out of a negative thought cycle.
Tracking your feelings through a journal is also recommended. “It’s a way for us to evaluate our thoughts to see if there are distortions,” says Dr. Leung-Yee. For example, always telling yourself that the things you do are stupid. “Thoughts are just thoughts, but sometimes we equate a thought to a fact.” She says tracking your thoughts, moods and activities will help you recognize patterns and hopefully, what works in finding a more positive space.
If you find you are struggling with ongoing stress and anxiety, be sure to reach out to your family doctor. They can help determine if a referral to an appropriate mental health professional is right for you.