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‘Rethinking Positive Thinking’ guides mental health, substance abuse patients back to optimism

11-20-14 Category: Mental Health

‘Rethinking Positive Thinking’ guides mental health, substance abuse patients back to optimism

How many times have we heard the phrase “think positively?” The power of positive thinking is endorsed by seminar speakers, religious leaders, teachers and parents. If we just think positively, good things will eventually happen to us and there are few who would disagree.

Gabriele Oettingen is a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Based on the principles of mental contrasting, her research focuses on how we think about the future and how that impacts cognition, emotion and behavior. She developed fantasy realization theory (FRT) which demonstrates that if we mentally picture our future reality and contrast it with our present reality, it can successfully bring about changes in cognition, emotion and behavior. Following her research, Oettingen wrote, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.”

From what she highlighted in her book, if we think positively, we are hoping for the best and no particular action is required. If we have a particular goal in mind and the road to that goal is envisioned, we often come up with our imaginary obstacles such as: “I won’t be able to afford it,” “I don’t have the training” or “it’s too far from home.” Oettingen says it’s important to know what the obstacles are that will get in the way of achieving the desired future.

When people enter rehab for substance abuse or treatment for mental health disorders, they are hoping for the best outcome. There are a series of steps they can take to help themselves reach the goal they want to achieve. It’s well known that cognitive behavioral therapy changes outcomes by changing thinking patterns, similar to Oettingen’s fantasy realization theory.

Most people are good at talking themselves out of trying new things by focusing on the obstacles that will prevent them from achieving a goal. If the obstacles are ignored, they can get in the way. According to the book, the “trick” is to anticipate the obstacles and plan ways to overcome them; this is useful in two ways.

First, if the number of obstacles that get in the way is too large, then it can actually help people to decide effectively when they should not attempt a goal. Second, when the obstacles are potentially manageable, then contrasting the present with the future gives people an opportunity to plan how to overcome those obstacles that do come up.

For patients in treatment for substance abuse or mental health disorders, this would be a very useful non-drug strategy. A therapist could tie this in with cognitive behavioral therapy and provide patients with the tools to achieve their goals.

“Rethinking Positive Thinking” does more than give an overview of the research. It provides a simple structure to teach people how to get motivated for achieving new goals. In keeping with the tendency for self-help books to provide memorable acronyms, Oettingen calls her process “WOOP,” which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. The purpose is to provide a set of steps to help people envision a desired future and plan for it in ways that will energize them to achieve that desired future. The book gives a number of specific exercises that people can apply to their own goals. You can read more at

In the preface to her book, Oettingen says, “In my studies, people who have applied mental contrasting have become significantly more motivated to quit cigarettes, lose weight, get better grades, sustain healthier relationships, negotiate more effectively in business situations, you name it. Simply put, by adding a bit of realism to people’s positive imaginings of the future, mental contrasting enables them to become dreamers and doers.”

“Rethinking Positive Thinking” presents scientific research suggesting that dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The book then examines and documents the power of a deceptively simple task – juxtaposing our dreams with the obstacle that prevent their attainment.

“The publication was written for individuals who are stuck and don’t know what to do about it. It’s also for people whose lives are just fine, but who might wonder if they could be better. It’s for people who have a particular challenge in front of them that they’ve tried and failed to handle in the past, or that they just don’t know how to approach. Ultimately, the book is written for everyone. Each individual needs motivation so that we can stay on track and move ahead.”

Staying on track and moving ahead is difficult for people with substance abuse or mental health disorders, having a specific set of steps to follow, but using WOOP could be helpful on the road to sobriety and in following the recommendations of their therapist.

This is something we all can try using WOOP:

W – Think of something you would love to accomplish

O – Imagine the outcome you would want

O – Picture what obstacles might appear and decide whether there are too many

P – If not, anticipate how you will deal with them and put your plan into action

Written by Veronica McNamara Sovereign Health Group writer

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