How to Change Your Mind

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The way to start changing your mind is not to force it or command it but to watch it. Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, who studies obsessive-compulsive disorders, teaches his patients "mindful awareness," a form of meditation that can free them from intrusive thoughts—a technique that has also been shown to help other patients stop a blue mood from becoming full-blown depression. The idea is to identify a destructive thought pattern, then simply label it and watch it and let it pass by whenever it appears in your mind.

When Caroline did this, her mood changed immediately. Instead of drowning in thoughts like "Bonkers never loved me!" she learned to say, "Oh look, there's a pessimistic explanation." This gave her enough space, enough mental distance, to at least consider a more optimistic story.

If you want to change your explanatory style, start by evaluating where you fall on the spectrum from pessimism to optimism. Researchers do this by analyzing the way people use the "three Ps" (personal, permanent, and pervasive elements) in their descriptions of past events. (You can use this quiz.) Unless your score shows you to be wildly optimistic, consider nudging yourself further toward the bright side.

Testing your explanatory style is the beginning of mindfulness, of watching the way your brain tells stories. Initially, you may simply notice that a thought seems negative; as you pay more attention, you will begin to see how you use the three Ps.

Once you've become aware of your explanatory style and its elements, make a concerted effort to describe positive events as personal, permanent, and pervasive. Tell the story of a bad event without personalizing it or thinking that it will have a broad, lasting impact on your life.

Staying the Course

The great thing about developing an optimistic explanatory style is that it's self-reinforcing. It increases your hope and expectation that your whole health-and-fitness regimen, mental and physical, will be worth the effort. This frame of mind will help keep you not only happy but healthy; studies have linked it to improved immune function, better lung function, quicker recovery from heart surgery, and a lower risk of heart disease. I've also noticed that it correlates with my clients' ability to achieve all their goals. Changing your thought diet—your way of thinking—may be the best thing you can do to stay on your food diet.

I suspect this is why Caroline, like many of my clients who successfully change their explanatory patterns, has experienced an unexpected side effect: She's in the best shape of her life. She's managed to drop a pattern of emotional eating, stay on an effective workout schedule, and lose five pounds. Even more dramatic are the changes in her posture and facial expression, which have gone from cringing and miserable to alert and interested, making her much more attractive and approachable. Not only does her mood improve every time she observes and alters a negative explanation rather than getting mired in it, but her body appears to love the change.

And I suggest that Caroline can expect this trend to continue. Is this an optimistic explanation? You bet. I'm sticking to my diet.

More Martha Beck Advice


Next Story