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Changing Addictive Thinking with Positive Psychology

Young Woman Facing the Sky

Patricia Henrie-Barrus, Ph.D. is assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah, and also a practicing clinical therapist in the growing and exciting new field of positive psychology. In the following interview she discusses her work applying positive psychology principles in addiction recovery and her new class “Changing Addictive Thinking” (EDPS 5060-097) offered by the Educational Psychology department.  Interview by Jade Ozawa-Kirk

Q. How did you get started in positive psychology?

A. My dissertation was on gratitude, a positive psychology principle. Positive psychology just made sense to me as a practitioner. More traditional psychology focuses so much on the disease model—the negative, what people can’t do, their weaknesses and that sort of thing. It made sense to me that when you focus on the strengths of a person and the things that they are doing well, they can better overcome problems.

Q. What type of addictions do patients come to you with?

A. Chemical addictions, eating disorders, relationship addictions (needing a relationship to make you happy), pornography. I think that as time goes on I’m going to see a lot more internet addictions.

Q. What kind of impact have you seen positive psychology have on the recovery process?

A. I think people with addictions tend to do a lot of blaming. They don’t take responsibility for their own behaviors, and they feel like the victims. Positive psychology gets people out of that and focusing on their strengths and visualizing themselves in a good way instead.

Q. What is different about positive psychology’s approach to addiction in comparison to other therapies?

A. Positive psychology steers away from labeling and stresses giving responsibility back to the individual with the addiction. There is a theory called the “Broaden and Build Theory.” It explains that the more positive thoughts we have, the more we expand—our thinking expands, our creativity expands, our intelligence expands. And that is what positive psychology focuses on.

Q. You have mentioned positive thinking, focusing on goals, focusing on strengths. What are positive strategies or activities you do to focus on those things?

A. The number one thing we talk about is your strengths—your signature strengths, what you have to offer. These aren’t accomplishments, they are things that make it so that you are able to accomplish. If people focus on their weaknesses, they get depressed and don’t feel like doing anything. Focusing on strengths, value systems, and meaning of life can do the opposite. Forgiveness is another big one. Using gratitude is huge. There has been a lot of research about that. People who use gratitude are less depressed; they look at life differently. We talk a lot about positive journaling—getting out your negative things and putting positive thoughts back into your head by journaling.

Q. What types of long-term benefits have you seen from using positive psychology interventions in recovery?

A. It is an entire attitude change. People who view the world in a negative way tend to bring negative things into their lives. The brain develops in an individual so much by the time they are eight years old. He learns how to talk, walk, ride a bike, but he also learns how to see life. Maybe he learns to see the world in negative light. Positive psychology therapy helps a patient to identify what the messages that define his actions are, and then to change the message if it is negative.

Q. What can a student taking your class look forward to learning?

A. We talk about the neurobiology of the addictive thinking process, things that are keeping you addicted. We talk about self-esteem and specific addictions that are prevalent in our society including eating disorders, pornography, gambling, internet, and chemical addictions. And then we learn about positive psychology strategies. The last segment of class is about co-dependencies and how families and relationships keep us in the addictive thinking mode.

Q. How can the principles taught in your class translate into other aspects of life?

A. Another thing that we go through in class is the change process. We talk about Prochaska’s Change Model and the stages of change. Students choose something they would like to work on and change throughout the semester. As a final project they write a paper discussing how they utilized principles discussed throughout the semester and whether they had been able to change. After learning about the stages of change and the process of change they can apply that to any changes they want to make.

Q. Lastly, if you were sitting across from someone struggling with an addiction, what is the first piece of advice you would give?

A. Make a list of all your strengths. Make a list of what you want to accomplish in your life. Make a list of your goals. Write these things down because if you don’t write it down it is not concrete to you. Then, focus on those goals. Ask other people to tell you things about yourself that they like. Look at your weaknesses. I believe that when people really like themselves, they don’t damage themselves. The first part of liking yourself is getting to know yourself. Do some inner reflection about who you are and what you want, separate from how others may define you.

 Q. Anything else you would like to add?

A. I want to stress that any student can use these principles because they are healthy thinking principles, not just for psychologists. I think that the Applied Positive Psychology Certificate offered at the U is incredibly useful. Any discipline, any major can use positive psychology strategies, personally and in the workplace. Anyone can use this class!

  • quortneynick

    Could Positive Psychology also be used to help with symptoms of ADHD?

  • rdjlaw

    Didn’t realize the impact of positive thinking!

  • Mitchell Banks

    This is a great article! Thank you for sharing this gem! Teaching
    yourself to recognize yours when they arise and changing them into something
    positive can boost your emotional well-being, will have a direct affect on the
    rest of your life. A positive attitude is one of the most powerful weapons for
    an addict to stop their addiction. It allows them to carry on and stick to
    their treatment. Positive thinking is one of the methods practicing on almost drug
    recovery centers
    , which truly help addicts in many ways. As
    the old saying says, an attitude of positive expectation is the mark of
    superior personality.