Robyn Skiff is program coordinator for the Medical Home Program at the UVM Medical Center.

Robyn Skiff is program coordinator for the Medical Home Program at the UVM Medical Center.

Chances are January finds you pulling out your journal (or downloading an app), and drafting a plan for a new you in the New Year: Get fit! Find a new job! Quit smoking! Get organized!

Scribbling away, you feel that cold you’ve battled since Thanksgiving closing in.  If you’re like most of us, what you secretly want right now is a few days on the couch in your cozy pod (what, didn’t get one this year?) watching Netflix and de-stressing from the hectic holiday run-up.

This annual rite to transform into a newer (better!) version of ourselves, coupled with lingering holiday-season pressures can leave many of us facing the New Year feeling less than our best.  Tapped out, we find ourselves thinking “I’ll make a fool of myself at the gym–people will stare at me,” “I’ll never quit smoking, it didn’t work last year,”or as a friend likes to say half-jokingly, “Another year since I didn’t become a better person.”

All of us, whether we realize it or not, have habitual things we say to ourselves.  This endless stream of unspoken thoughts is often referred to as self-talk.  Do you think of self-talk as meaningless internal chatter, just so much mental white noise? Think again.

There’s a strong link between our thoughts, attitudes and emotions, and our mental and physical health. Research has shown that thoughts and emotions trigger certain hormones or chemicals in our bodies that in turn affect how our body functions. For example, they can change our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and concentration, and influence our ability to fight off illness.

Are you a nurturing coach or your own harshest critic? How you answer that question may reflect more than your outlook on life or your attitude toward yourself—it may also affect your health.  That’s because positive thinking is a key part of effective stress management, and effective stress management is associated with numerous health benefits.

Psychologists say positive thinking centers on things like belief in your own abilities, a positive approach to challenges, and trying to make the most of bad situations.

How can this improve your health?  When faced with stressful situations, positive thinkers tend to cope more effectively than pessimists, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on the body.  Rather than dwelling on their frustrations or things they can’t change, they’ll devise a plan of action and ask others for help and advice.  Pessimists simply assume the situation is out of their control and there’s nothing they can do to change it.

Learning to change negative thoughts (“I can’t handle this!”) to more positive ones (“How can I handle this?”) is an important tool for managing stress. Fortunately for non-Pollyanna types, experts believe positivism and the resilience associated with it can be cultivated.  Changing how we think works because our body’s stress response is triggered by perceived stress.

How can you do that? You might change your mantra from:

  • “I’ll never get anything right” to “I always learn from my mistakes.”
  • “I’ll never get out of debt” becomes “I take small steps every day towards my financial goals.”
  • Instead of “Starting an exercise program is overwhelming,” try telling yourself “I can start slow, and if I get tired I can rest.”

Changing the way we think is like changing any habit.  It takes attention and practice.  Actively nurturing positive emotions helps manage stress levels, and build coping skills that will serve us well in the future.

Finally, try giving yourself time to unplug before tackling your resolutions. Try this approach from a friend who did find a cozy pod under her tree: “On the couch in my new cozy pod, looking like a cross between Peter the platypus and a flying squirrel.  And  I. Don’t. Care.”  Happy New Year!   

What positive mantras have you found effective for managing stress and staying motivated?

Robyn Skiff is program coordinator for Medical Home Self Management, part of the office of Community Health Improvement at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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