People are quick to throw around phrases like, “stay positive” or “don’t let life get you down” but is there really life-changing power in positive thinking for those in recovery from addiction? Researchers tend to think so. But before we jump into all the goodness, let’s look at the opposite side of the spectrum and see what researchers say about negativity.
Just as positive thinking can impact your physical and emotional well-being in recovery, so can negative thinking. In fact, negative emotions such as intense sadness have been associated with decreased immune function and antibodies to combat illness.1 Pessimism also affects the body by increasing levels of destructive stress hormones in the bloodstream.2
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also found that negative thinking about the previous outcomes of stressors appeared to affect vulnerability to the impact of later ones on several different aspects of well-being.3 An example of this in a sober living environment could be thinking about the last time you relapsed and dwelling on the negative impacts of it. If we take this into consideration with the research cited above, this could actually increase your risk of relapsing again.
Conversely, if you choose to dwell on all the incredible progress you’ve made throughout your recovery journey, are you less likely to relapse again? Let’s take a look at the impact of positive thinking to answer that question.
In the scientific world, there is overwhelming evidence supporting the notion that positive thinking provides significant physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits. One John Hopkins study illustrated the physical benefits by using a survey tool to determine a person’s positivity and negativity. This tool assessed each individual’s:
Using this survey tool, the research team found that people with a family history of heart disease were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or cardiovascular event within 25 years if they had a positive attitude.4
Other studies show that psychological response plays a powerful role in healing and coping, and even just having a positive attitude or expectation about the outcome of a situation can lead to an increased physical, mental, and spiritual state of being.
According to an article from Scientific American, placebo medications can trigger a positive physical response to certain illnesses and conditions simply because patients maintain an expectation that the medications will make them feel better. For example, placebo painkillers can trigger a release of endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving chemicals in the body.5 This is not to say that people can cure their own illnesses simply by being positive, but positivity does play a role in physical health.
Individuals in recovery from drugs and alcohol face plenty of obstacles and challenges throughout recovery and while in detox, rehab, and transitional housing programs. While it’s no secret that recovery is a long-term process, learning to think positively throughout this process provides endless benefits, such as6:
There is no step-by-step recipe you can follow to develop a positive attitude while in recovery, but there are several things you can do to gradually change your perspective on life and learn to be a more positive person. Making these changes will help you achieve ongoing personal growth while also continuing with your recovery with a transitional housing program.
1. Serve others.
Taking the time to get outside of yourself and your own issues is a great way to improve your attitude. Sometimes just seeing others who are less fortunate than you can change your perspective on your own situations. In addition, research shows that volunteering increases feelings of happiness and overall well-being.7,8
Although this may sound cheesy, there is scientific evidence that proves smiling (even fake smiling) can actually reduce stress.9 So even if you don’t feel like doing it, smiling may help improve your attitude on a regular basis.
3. Practice Acceptance
Learning to accept that things change, problems are a part of life, and that sometimes, there’s really nothing you can do to change a situation, will help you implement a more positive attitude about life and recovery. Part of the 12-step program involves taking responsibility for your life and actions, which is also something that you should continually strive for in sober living.
4. Meditate Regularly
In rehab, you may have learned to meditate. Continuing this practice in your sober living program is a great way to reflect on your actions and thoughts and increase self-awareness. Doing this on a consistent basis will also help you manage stress and regulate your mood.
5. Maintain relationships with other positive people in recovery.
Genuine happiness and positivity are contagious, so surrounding yourself with other positive people may encourage you to adopt the same behaviors and attitudes. Sober living homes, especially, provide a great opportunity to both mentor others and be mentored in this way.
If you are recovering from addiction, put these practices into action on a daily basis and experience the power of positive thinking for yourself.
The term “pay it forward” was popularized in 2000, when Haley Joel Osment starred alongside Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt in a big screen adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, Pay It Forward.
In the movie, a teacher, played by Spacey, gives his class an unconventional assignment: to create a project that will generate positive change in the world. Osment, his student, develops “Pay it Forward,” according to which individuals on the receiving end of a good deed have to complete three acts of kindness for three different people, in turn. However, the three acts had to be difficult enough that the beneficiaries couldn’t complete them easily.
The movie’s underlying message is that positive change in the world doesn’t require grand gestures or extensive planning. Instead, people can promote social good in simple, yet effective, ways.
As a 10-year-old, I didn’t know or understand the term “cliché,” and took the message at face-value. After watching the movie in class, I brainstormed various favors I could complete for strangers. However, no deed seemed adequate enough to change the world the way Osment did.
My opinion changed approximately one year later, when I saw two cousins help an elderly woman up several flights of stairs, voluntarily.
My cousins and I were visiting another family member who lived in a six-story apartment building. That day, the elevator wasn’t functioning, so everyone was forced to climb the stairs. The elderly woman, a quadriplegic, was in no position to walk, and my cousins asked if she had someone to assist her.
The woman told us she was alone and would wait until the elevator was fixed – but my cousins wouldn’t hear of it. They asked if they could lend a hand, and after she nodded in approval, one cousin lifted the woman and carried her to the fourth floor while the other carried her wheelchair. The woman was as overjoyed as I was shocked by the selfless act.
That day I learned that opportunities to help people present themselves unexpectedly; we don’t necessarily have to seek them out. The incident had a profound impact on me, as I left the scene more committed than ever to mirror the altruistic behavior I witnessed in that six-story building.
I saw an equally powerful scene about a year ago, when I took my five-year-old cousin to play at the park. As soon as I finished pushing him in the swings, he made a mad dash across the playground and grabbed a handful of dandelions from a patch of grass. Curious as to what he would do with the flowers, he sprinted across the playground and stopped in front of a lonely girl who was sitting under a tree. I noticed the girl was crying as I approached, but before I could say anything my little cousin handed her the dandelions. “I thought you could use these. I saw you crying and I wanted to tell you that you have a friend in me,” he told her.
I assumed the two knew each other, but the girl stopped crying seconds later in order to introduce herself. I was floored (and extremely proud) by my cousin’s actions. Unprompted, he took it upon himself to help someone in need.
The episode reminded me that everyone has the ability to improve the lives of others with simple gestures. At a time when I doubted my ability to advance positive change in the world, my cousin’s actions instilled a new sense of purpose in me.
I suspect that it’s part of human nature to feel overwhelmed by injustice, which renders us disillusioned with trying to make the world a better place. It’s easy to lose optimism, focus, and motivation in the face of social evils like war, poverty, and hunger.
But watching people complete random acts of kindness teaches us that social change depends on the very deeds that seem trivial. If we limit ourselves to macro-level change, we overlook immediate opportunities to assist others in meaningful ways.