Are you in danger, girl?

Research shows how our thoughts can be our own worst enemy — and what to do about it.

Ghost, Paramount. Screenshot from Fandango Movie Clips.

Positive psychology, though focused on what makes people flourish, does not ignore the presence of adversity. In fact, well-being theory, including Dr. Martin Seligman’s five core elements of positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, provides some of the key constructs that help us tackle what life throws at as we try to live our best lives. And being able to deal with negative events and still grow and thrive is what resilience is all about.

Like in the movie Ghost, it helps to have someone cautioning you that trouble lies ahead, causing you to think and do things differently. But, unlike the pottery spinning protagonist Molly, we don’t all have a psychic medium like Oda Mae Brown to channel warnings from our boyfriend’s spirit and break it down with a healthy dose of no-nonsense. Instead, it's often up to us to pay attention and recognize when it’s time to tell ourselves clearly, “You in danger, girl!

Because we can be our own worst enemy, it is important to be aware of how our own thoughts are affecting us. Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatté provide a research-based playbook for dealing with this in The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. They stress the importance of identifying our “ticker-tape beliefs” — the flurry of thoughts that rush to our mind as we process a potential adversity. By paying attention to such thoughts, we may then be able to identify one or more inner narratives that are preventing us from having a proper perspective. Reivich and Shatté point to seven such narratives, otherwise known as “thinking traps.” They are summarized below, with inspiration drawn from Oda Mae’s knack for getting to the point:

  • Rushing to judgment: You are not getting enough facts!
  • Overgeneralizing: You are blowing this out of proportion!
  • Overemphasizing the negative: You are really being a drag!
  • Being hard on yourself: You are blaming yourself too much!
  • Not taking sufficient responsibility: You aren’t owning up to this!
  • Not communicating your needs and goals clearly: They can’t read your mind!
  • Allowing your feelings to take over: Get a hold of yourself!

These thoughts often reflect beliefs rooted in one or more of three dimensions: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness. The more one thinks an adverse event is his or her fault (personal), lasting (permanent), or affects all areas of his or her life (pervasive), the more pessimistic his or her narrative is. Ticker tape thoughts can also reflect what one imagines will result from the adversity, ranging from seeing a solution to feeling that all hope is lost. Reivich and Shatté explain how it’s these thoughts, rather than the event itself, that trigger emotional consequences such as anger, sadness, anxiety or embarrassment, emphasizing why it is so important to understand what we are thinking.

Reivich, as Director of Resilience and Positive Psychology Training Programs at the Positive Psychology Center, has been a leader in the effort to develop and deliver programs that equip people with the skills to respond to adversity and be more resilient. That includes a comprehensive training program for the U.S. Army that focuses on six strategies for dealing with thinking traps. And this range of techniques can work just as well for you as an army of one:

  1. Detecting icebergs: Recognize our deeply held beliefs that may be hurting us. Find out what’s bringing you down!
  2. Energy management: Employ techniques to help foster calm and focus. Take a deep breath!
  3. Problem solving: Determine the actual cause of a problem in order to develop a solution. Get to the bottom of it!
  4. Minimizing catastrophic thinking: Learn to identify and plan for the most likely outcome. Be realistic!
  5. Fighting back against counterproductive thoughts in real time: Leverage optimism, evidence and perspective to help properly frame what’s happening. Challenge yourself!
  6. Cultivating Gratitude: Identify and focus on components of our life for which we are thankful. Look on the bright side!

These strategies show that you don’t need special powers to tackle challenging events. Reinforcing that point, Dr. Ann Masten, an expert on resilience in human development at the University of Minnesota, found that although certain hereditary talents and environmental conditions might come in handy in tough times, much of what helps people deal with difficulty are more basic factors within their control. She aptly calls this “ordinary magic.” And that magic does not involve being able to hear voices from the spirit world. Rather, it means noticing your own thoughts, recognizing how they may be leading you astray, cutting to the chase, and intently forging a better path forward. You can be resilient, girl!

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