Before you roll your eyes and move on, hold up a second. We’re not suggesting that you act like you’re in a remake of The Sound of Music, but there are science-backed strategies that you can use to stay positive, even if it seems like everything around you is out of control.
These practical strategies aren’t designed to make you ignore the realities you face, but rather they will precipitate an internal recalibration. And the best part is, they’re (mostly) free.
Worry, stress and anxiety aren’t the enemies here. They’re essential for survival. The problem comes in when your brain gets stuck in a pattern of fight or flight, which can negatively impact your mood, ability to function optimally, and even your health. In fact, pessimistic people have a 20% higher risk of dying compared to optimists.
But the good news is that if you’re stuck in the negative, it doesn’t have to be like that. People who have obsessive negative thoughts and behaviours can change those patterns. This results in a change in brain activity leaving you happier, more optimistic and better equipped to take on the challenges that life throws at you.
And the benefits?
“Optimism is associated with mood, coping, and immune change in response to stress.”https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9654763/
So, how do you initiate the shift?
1. Practice gratitude
The practice of keeping track of the things you’re grateful for, even once a week, is likely to make you more upbeat and improve your physical health too.
- Write a gratitude letter – One study followed participants who were asked to write a letter to someone who had been particularly kind to them and deliver the letter in person. The positive effects of this exercise were felt even a month later.
- Keep a gratitude journal – Write down things that you are grateful for; they could be big or small such as achievements, belongings you appreciate, or things that happened during the day. Gratitude apps work better for some people, and you can set a reminder to make journaling a daily habit.
- Stop and smell the roses – We get so caught up in our days that it seems nearly impossible to stand still and breathe. Set aside time in your day to meditate, take a walk around the block or enjoy a cup of coffee without picking up your phone.
- Share your successes – Telling a friend about something good that happened to you amplifies its effects.
- Take time away from your phone – You probably don’t need someone else to tell you that scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok isn’t going to make you feel good about yourself.
2. Develop an optimistic mindset
Being optimistic is a choice and not necessarily a default mindset. But, it’s not too difficult to work on cultivating one. It doesn’t mean ignoring the bad things or glossing over setbacks, but rather focusing on the positive in each situation. Sounds impossible? Luckily it gets easier with practice.
- Write down your goals and dreams – The physical act of writing down future positive outcomes and life goals has a number of health benefits.
- Look for silver linings – There’s often something good in difficult situations; try to hold on to those by asking yourself:
- Have I grown?
- What am I proud of in this situation?
- Do I have new skills?
3. Learn to be kind to yourself
Remember that you are your own harshest critic and unhealthy self-talk leads to decreased motivation and increased feelings of helplessness. You’d never talk to a friend the way you speak to yourself, so stop!
- Always ask yourself if the negative thought is true – Forgetting a friend’s birthday doesn’t make you a terrible friend; you just made a mistake.
- Do a quick reality check – If you’re convinced you’re going to fail at something, think back to similar situations where you succeeded.
- Think how you would address a friend – Chances are you would be a whole lot less critical and a whole lot more gracious if it were anyone else.
4. Learn to reframe negativity
Positivity doesn’t mean the absence of pessimism; rather, it’s the ability to redirect your focus away from the negative aspects of a situation so that you can focus on the positive.
If you want to stay positive, you might need to work on breaking negative thought patterns. While you can’t ignore reality, there’s no point in obsessing about things you can’t fix or don’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Unfortunately, focusing on the negatives not only affects your mood but also has a negative impact on your performance.
- Acknowledge negative thoughts and move on – Once you have the negative thought in a certain situation, ask yourself what the options are and move on. This will guide you back into a positive mindset.
- Understand that positivity is a choice – The quicker you reframe a negative experience, the more time you’ll spend feeling positive, and it becomes easier and more intuitive the more you do it.
- Get perspective – Try asking yourself if the issue is really worth all the energy that you’re spending on it.
- Set aside time to worry – This sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but it means you can mentally put the issue aside, and it buys you some time. There’s a good chance that you might already have come up with a solution during the course of the day, or the situation may have resolved itself by the time you get to your “worry session”.
- Distract yourself – This isn’t an excuse to google cat memes (although it can provide temporary relief), but you can take yourself out of the situation by putting on your favourite music, going for a walk, or watching a movie.
5. Try mindfulness
Mindfulness practices benefit everyone from physicians to people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder as they go a long way to treating the root cause rather than the symptoms.
- Label your thoughts – Thoughts are just that; they’re thoughts. They’re not always true, they’re not always good or bad, and you shouldn’t always believe them.
- Meditate – Using a meditation app, breathing exercises, a body scan or your own approach, try to carve out some time every day to check in with yourself.
6. Foster positive connections
Strong relationships are closely linked to happiness, so when you start feeling down, ask for help, offer to help others, meet up with friends and try to avoid isolating yourself.
- Seek out people who build you up and make you feel good about yourself.
- Volunteer – You don’t have to make a long term commitment, but giving to others is one of the quickest ways to kickstart happiness and positivity.
7. Make changes
There are many things that you can’t change, and worrying about them isn’t going to make any difference. Rather focus on areas where you do have control to make changes. Whether it’s at work or at home, there are usually a number of actions you can take to make your life better.
- Do something fun – A temporary distraction might be just what you need to break out of a negative loop. Join a hike, watch a comedy, or put on some music and dance around your living room. It doesn’t have to be a big event, but it will give you a little bit of room to breathe.
- Schedule a chat with a mentor – The pressures of running a practice can be overwhelming, so getting an objective perspective and some positive reinforcement can give you the motivation you need to keep going.
8. Give your body what it needs
As humans, we thrive on time in nature, exercise, nutrition and sleep. If you’re skipping out on any one of these, your ability to think positively about yourself and your situation is going to be affected.
- Get enough sleep – Strive for 8 hours, but be guided by what your body needs; it may be more or less.
- Get out in nature – Join a hiking club and commit to one or two hikes a month, or make a list of natural highlights around where you live like this photographer did in a small town in England.
- Get some exercise – Combine your exercise with time out in nature where possible, but even a 20-minute walk around the block will make a big difference.
- Eat properly – Good nutrition is key for your physical and mental health. If you are time-constrained, work with a dietician or a meal delivery service.
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We’ve covered eight strategies to help you stay positive in tough times. They’re all backed up by science and are accessible to everyone. Whether you’re feeling down about a situation at your practice or struggling for motivation during a time that has been incredibly tough for millions around the globe, there might be something in here that can help.
It’s been a very difficult year so if you’ve found yourself in patterns of negative thinking, go easy on yourself. You might not shift to sunshine and roses overnight, but slowly these small changes will start to snowball, and in a month or two, you’ll look back and be able to see how far you’ve come.
Just a quick note: This article is not medical advice, nor should it be considered a solution for anxiety or depression. The article is aimed at offering ways to cultivate a positive mindset. Please seek out the services of a mental health professional if you are struggling with anxiety or depression.