Keeping Positive in Difficult Times
‘The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?’
This is a comment made by Vivian (played by Julia Roberts) in the American romantic comedy film, Pretty Woman. Unless you happen to be blessed with an especially upbeat and sunny disposition and are extraordinarily unflappable in the face of adversity, then I would guess most of us will fall into that category at some point in our lives.
There are a hundred and one reasons why any one of us might be struggling to cope with life’s frequent challenges. Often, when we feel overwhelmed by a situation it can affect our ability to sleep properly, which can make it even harder to start a new day positively and with enthusiasm. There are all sorts of other choices that we might start to make, such as eating comfort food for example, which might feel good at the time, but may help to perpetuate negative feelings, or even set us off on a downward spiral.
BUT… the good news is, there are also lots and lots of ways that we can help ourselves to alleviate these feelings.
Taking Care of Your Mind
Positive thinking is not a new phenomenon. It’s believed to have originated in the late 1800s with a watchmaker named Phineas Quimby. He became fascinated with hypnotism and was ultimately convinced that much of what happens to our bodies is a reflection of what’s going on in our minds.
Since that time, it’s a subject that has been widely studied, talked about and written about; fortunately, in 2021 we are developing a greater understanding of just how important our mental well-being is to our holistic health.
So, what can we do to try to maintain a positive attitude in the most testing of times? One particularly constructive idea is to be aware of how we react to things. When you’re tired and stressed, it’s easy to react angrily, or be upset by something that’s happened, or that someone has said. We all do it, but just supposing you stopped for a second, took a step back and asked yourself why you’re angry or upset. It’s a tricky thing to get your head around (well, for me it is, anyway) but no situation or person can make you react in a particular way. Most of the time our reaction to things is involuntary, but it is possible to train yourself not to always react negatively - hence the reason strategies like anger management can often be effective.
For most people, being able to control how you react is going to be a process - possibly a long one. I’ve heard stories about people who just decided one day that they were going to be optimistic and confident and hey presto life immediately got better: I’m not saying that isn’t true, just that perhaps it’s not realistic for everyone.
What you can do, over a period of time, is begin to retrain your thinking patterns, so that after a while thinking positively becomes your more natural state than thinking negatively. There are a number of strategies that may be helpful for achieving this goal. To begin with, trying to find the positive in a situation - however small, or indeed daft - can often help to put things into a better perspective. Similarly, thinking of ways you can turn negative thoughts into positive ones, or taking a moment to consider what’s good about your life can help to just break that cycle of pessimism.
I think most of us probably aren’t anywhere near as in touch with our brains as we are with our bodies, which is strange when you consider that they control literally every aspect of our lives from the slightest move we make to each thought we think. And yet, from birth, we expect our brains to learn new skills every day. If we can train our brains to learn languages, create all kinds of literature, art and music, and assimilate the thinking skills required for everything from astrophysics to driving a Formula 1 car, then, surely, we can train - or re-train - it to think positively?
Towards this end, there are any number of motivational quotes and speakers it’s easy to access online or through your local library: reading or listening to how other people have overcome mental challenges, or improved their positive stamina is often inspiring and motivating. There are also all kinds of helpful ideas out there, that may work for you. For example, laugh at things as much as possible. Even when it feels like it might be a false laugh, do it anyway - at least you’re stretching the right muscles to give you smiley wrinkles and not frowny ones. Have a mantra - something that helps you to feel more positive, or more as though you’re in control. Repeat it often. Try to cross bridges when you reach them, rather than imagining how you’re going to cope with imaginary scenarios that may never happen.
Practical Concrete Actions
One initial practical step is to write down your routine and then spend some time thinking about ways to make it more positive. Small things, such as allowing yourself time to read a chapter of your book, or getting up ten minutes earlier so that you sit over that cup of tea rather than rushing around like a wild Tasmanian Devil to get out of the house, can have a real impact on your mood. Many studies have shown clear evidence that listening to, or engaging in music has incredibly positive benefits for our mental well-being. So, ramp up that singing in the shower, or maybe think about actually learning to play that instrument you’ve been promising yourself for years you would.
I’ve spoken about sleep already - many studies into sleep provide evidence as to the importance of sleeping enough. We hear all the time on TV about the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, too, and really stopping to think about how we physically look after ourselves has been proven to affect our mental attitude. My only addition to this is to try always to make changes slowly and in an achievable way. Resolutions that happen in small steps over a period of time are more likely to stick than a completely radical and overwhelming life overhaul. Asking someone you feel comfortable with to help is also a good idea. We all benefit from some kindly boosting when our resolve is flagging.
None of these steps are a cure in themselves and, as I mentioned before, for most of us, developing a positive mental attitude takes time. Sometimes, too, we need support, so if you’re struggling with serious mental health issues it’s vitally important to seek experienced professional help.
For me, I think one of the most important things is to be kind. It’s a well-known phenomenon that being kind to others and perhaps offering practical help, or a listening ear can be a positive experience for everyone involved. But it’s equally important that we’re kind to ourselves. Be okay with backslides when you set yourself goals, allow yourself treats along the way without feeling guilty, and most of all be fine about being you whoever you are.
Stay safe, well and happy.
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