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For Cognitive Resilience, Positive Thinking Tips From Harvard Psychiatry

By | October 21st, 2020

Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Jennifer Gatchel shares tips for positive thinking toward to improve cognitive health.

A recent study found that constant uncontrollable worry — what cognitive scientists call repetitive negative thinking — may be a factor in the aggregation of the harmful brain proteins that lead to Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

“Understanding the factors that can increase the risk of dementia is vital in helping us improve our knowledge of this devastating condition and, where possible, developing prevention strategies,” Alzheimer’s Society Director of Research and Influencing Fiona Carragher said in a news release. One of those prevention strategies could be as simple as training the brain toward positive thinking.

Study co-author Dr. Gael Chételat at Université de Caen-Normandie added: “Looking after your mental health is important, and it should be a major public health priority, as it’s not only important for people’s health and well-being in the short term, but it could also impact your eventual risk of dementia.”

Dr. Jennifer R. Gatchel, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School recently shared with Harvard Health some tips for encouraging positive thinking.

According to Gatchel, if repetitive negative thinking does have a lasting detrimental impact on brain health, addressing it could be a means of preventing cognitive health problems down the line, including dementia.

Here are a few of the ways she suggested altering unhealthy thinking patterns to boost mental and emotional health.

1. Acknowledge problematic thinking.

Some amount of worry is normal. But if it takes over your life, it’s time to make a change. Pay attention to how you feel, and how much bandwidth you devote to negative thinking.

2. Limit the amount of time you indulge your worries.

When negative thoughts come up, Harvard Health recommends setting a time limit for how long you permit yourself to engage with them. Gatchel suggested that people could plan in advance: “I’ll think about this concern or talk to a friend about this from noon to 1 p.m. today, but then I have to move on to something else.”

3. Commit to healthier habits.

According to Harvard Health, “If you do think you are falling into this negative thinking pattern, you can develop alternative routines to break the cycle by adopting a new habit. For example, if you start having negative thoughts, you could shift gears and distract yourself by listening to music, reading, or talking to a friend or family member.”

Chételat added that mindfulness activities may also prove beneficial: “Our thoughts can have a biological impact on our physical health, which might be positive or negative. Mental training practices such as meditation might help promoting positive — while down-regulating negative — associated mental schemes.”

According to recent research from The Lancet, lifestyle factors have a big impact on cognitive health, and many are under our control: Exercise, continued learning, a healthy, diverse diet of fruits, vegetables, antioxidants and other nutrients, limited alcohol consumption, sleeping well, engaging with friends and family, and other factors can all have not only a mitigating effect on the stress and anxiety that are closely related to repetitive negative thinking, but can improve cognitive health and decrease risk for things like dementia in the long run.

4. Ask for help when you need it.

According to Gatchel, if personal efforts to change one’s behaviors and thought patterns are unsuccessful, consult with a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a psycho-social intervention focused on acknowledging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions and behaviors like repetitive negative thinking, improving emotional regulation and developing personal coping strategies.

Finding more effective ways to manage stress and anxiety not only removes some obstacles and interruptions from everyday life — it can also be an overall brain boost.

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