Can You Think Your Way Out of Stress and Depression?

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By Suzanne Kane In this fast-paced world, there’s no shortage of daily demands. In the determination to accomplish everything, some things inevitably fall off the list or people find themselves less than satisfied with the results. A mounting sense of pressure can take its toll, even bringing on symptoms of depression. Before resorting to unhealthy methods of coping — such as alcohol consumption, smoking pot, or numbing feelings with various drugs — consider other avenues to help ward off stress and depression. One option is positive psychology, which poses an intriguing question: Can you think your way out of stress and depression? For an answer to this question and to shed some light on the power of positive psychology, we turned to Marsha Boveja Riggio, PhD, NCC, LPC-S, an associate professor and the director of training for counseling programs at Argosy University in Washington, D.C.

Q: What is your background?

A: I’ve been practicing as a licensed professional counselor for over 20 years, with a big chunk of that time spent in the military and working in the community with adolescents, families, low-income adults and professionals in the D.C. area. My work has evolved to take on positive psychology to help address depression and anxiety in a more positive way. I practice in Maryland and D.C., and I have many clients in recovery from substance abuse.

Q: How important is positive thinking in recovery from substance abuse?

A: Our field sees substance abuse and any kind of addiction as a way of coping and self-medicating, which isn’t best. What positive psychology does is to focus on a positive form of self-help versus an unhealthy one. It teaches positive self-help tactics for whatever the stresses are instead of using, and other ways to address depression or anxiety that’s causing a person to abuse drugs or alcohol. Positive psychology can also help people look at having positive consequences for their behaviors. Right now, the consequences for this population are typically negative. By the time they get to counseling, they’ve had some major consequences — they’ve lost their house, job or family. We want them to have better consequences for new behaviors. This can be how they address their anxiety and depression and look at what the consequences are for doing that. In positive psychology, we concentrate on the present. It’s more about what’s going on with them now and helping them think more positively about what’s going on in their lives. This includes getting them to look at how to deal with their stressors in a more affirmative way. That may include rethinking the situation or looking at it from a different perspective, as in what they can take control of. People with substance abuse problems often do a lot of black and white thinking, so we work on getting rid of that and have them thinking more gray and considering more options. Usually that leads to better consequences, improved identification of what they do have control of, and different decisions about those things. For example, they may do things differently, exposing themselves to a more positive environment, people and experiences that are perhaps different than what they’ve done in the past, like volunteering or being of service. This new perspective also builds their sense of security and starts to decrease their anxiety and inability to deal with the stressors that led them to substance abuse in the first place.

Q: How can positive thinking alleviate stress and reduce symptoms of depression?

A: It’s a lot like cognitive behavioral therapy in that you have to adjust how you think about things. It’s not just pure self-help. An individual needs a mental health expert to guide them with positive psychology. It’s all about teaching them to adjust how they think about their responses to others and their environment, and how they think about themselves. Changing the word “depression” to a concept of being more positive goes a long way. For example, by better defining depression and how we react to stress, we tend to be more positive. Stopping that line of thinking right away (an exercise called stop-stop), the person is then supported by the therapist to be more action-oriented. Talking about the present is practiced, not so much talking about the past. For some people, other things may be going on. They may have a chronic illness or have had a traumatic brain injury. Positive psychology is a complement to traditional counseling. Traditional counseling, or psychotherapy, is insight- and relationship-based, which is highly valuable. However, positive psychology is more about taking action — purposely changing how you think and act. A person is able to change depressive thoughts about themselves, the environment and others. We also encourage people to seek out others who are positive in their lives to help them see their own strengths and assets. It’s very empowering.

Q: How can people overcome blocks to positive thinking?

A: Positive psychology can’t work on its own. Some people need to process certain things that haven’t been processed before. The way positive psychology addresses that is to help the individual find a place for these negative events — to process them, accept them and put them somewhere so they can move forward.

Q: If people don’t view themselves as positive, how can they incorporate positive thinking in the healing process?

A: Seek guidance and support from a mental health professional. If people don’t see themselves in a positive light, these everyday tactics can help them develop a more positive outlook:

  • Look for the “good” in every situation.
  • Embrace the gray, not just black and white.
  • Practice thought-blocking, or stopping negative thoughts.
  • Be in control of something that’s positive and own it.
  • Do something good each day.
  • Do something pleasurable every day.
  • Practice mindfulness — be aware of your emotions and how to keep them more positive.
  • Be kind to everyone you interact with.
  • Try to have a positive influence on someone else. Try to make someone else feel good. Volunteering is a great way for people to do this and to get a different perspective.
  • Perform well on just one activity each day. Do just one thing very well.
  • If you like to write, keep a running list of what’s good in your life. Each day add something new. This can serve as a reminder of some good things in your life.
  • Read things that are positive instead of negative. Being able to distinguish this in the media and your own reading will help you become a more positive thinker.
  • Figure out how to balance your daily activities and how to balance positive things for yourself, others and the environment.
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