Is your glass half empty or half full? The age-old question that I am sure you have heard before. Your answer supposedly reflects if you are a pessimist or an optimist. Someone who is a pessimist tends to look on the negative side of things and anticipates the worst in every situation. Where as someone who is an optimist tends to look on the positive side of things and believe that good will ultimately prevail over evil in the world. You may not think it matters whether you are a pessimist or an optimist, but some studies are now showing that the way you think can affect your health.
Having positive thoughts has many benefits for your brain. Positive thoughts can help strengthen nerve connections in your brain, which can improve your mental productivity, improve your ability to think and analyze, and increase alertness and attentiveness. Your brain is made to respond to pleasure in a way that reinforces pleasure, meaning that if you are thinking positive thoughts and your brain is happy, your brain will learn to continue this pattern… positive thoughts lead to more positive thoughts.
People who have a positive mind set tend to lead healthier life styles and are more active. Exercise improves your mood by releasing endorphins into your body… another way your body is programed to continue down the road to happiness. By keeping things positive, you will also be less likely to drink or smoke to excess, which we all know are not the healthiest of choices. It is believed that by changing your mindset to be positive you could increase your life span, lower your risk of depression, improve your coping skills, improve your cardiovascular health, and even help prevent the common cold.
How can having a positive mind set really improve your health so much? Well, when you have negative thoughts your body is automatically put into a “fight or flight” type response. By having a pessimistic attitude, you are constantly bracing yourself for the worst possible outcome, which puts your body in a constant state of stress. This causes your sympathetic nervous system to create a cascade of events that result in the release norepinephrine and epinephrine. These hormones cause immediate physical reactions to improve your chances of winning the fight or outrunning your attacker. These reactions include acceleration of your heart and lung function, slowing down of your digestive system, dilation of your pupils, constriction and relaxation of your blood vessels, and releasing fat and sugar for muscle energy. When your body is always primed for action like this, it gets tired. This can lead to mood swings between agitation, anxiety, and depression. You may also experience decreased memory and attentiveness. Not only is our mental health affected, but our physical health is too. When we are constantly on edge, we feel fatigue and low energy and are at an increased risk for depression. It also weakness our immune system which means our bodies can not fight off bacteria and illness, putting us at an increased risk for getting sick. Overall, constant levels of increased stress can contribute to a shortened life span and a decreased quality of life.
In order to change your mindset from being negative to positive, you must identify your negative thinking in real time. There are many ways in which we “speak” to ourselves in a negative way including filtering, personalizing, catastrophizing, and polarizing. Filtering is when we magnify the negative aspects of a story and minimize (or filter) out the positive aspects. Personalizing involves blaming ourselves automatically when something bad occurs. Catastrophizing is just what it sounds like… anticipating the absolute worst thing to happen in a situation or turning something small that happened into a big event that leads to your whole day being ruined. Polarizing means you are seeing the situation as completely bad or completely good, no in between. With all of these types of self-talk, and when we have a negative attitude in general, not only are we expecting the worst but we are also taking an active part in making the worst happen. Just like positive thoughts lead to more positive thoughts, the same is true for negative thoughts. By recognizing when we are having these negative thoughts initially, we can put a stop to them and prevent them from taking over the rest of our day.
This first step in the process to changing your mindset is identifying the areas that need change. Think about the areas of your life, or time of day, where you tend to think more negatively. Once you identify these areas, starting checking yourself. When you notice yourself thinking negatively, or periodically throughout your day, stop and focus on the way you are thinking. If you notice yourself in a negative thought pattern, think about the positive aspects of that situation to flip the switch in your brain. Stay open to humor and lead a healthy lifestyle. When we laugh, we automatically feel less stressed. Give yourself permission to smile and find the joy, even in the most difficult of situations. Sometimes taking a mini mental break to joke and laugh will give your brain the time it needs to reset and refocus. Exercise is a great way to boost your mood and decrease your stress levels, plus it leaves you feeling accomplished and ready to take on your next task! Another key part to having a positive mindset is to surround yourself with like-minded people. If you are surrounded by positive people during a difficult time, they will support you and encourage you, whereas being around more negative minded people could cause you to doubt your problem solving capability and increase your stress level.
Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, start practicing positive self-talk. We all know the golden rule of treating others how you would want to be treated, but we must also remember to TALK to ourselves the way we would want to be talked to. When I hear someone speaking negatively about him or herself, I always say to them “You should talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend”. A lot of the things we think about ourselves, we probably wouldn’t dare say to one of our closest friends, especially when we are thinking of ourselves critically. One example of changing the way you talk to yourself would be to say, “I love to take on a challenge” instead of thinking “this is too hard”. As soon as a negative thought enters your mind, find the positive in the situation and repeat that to yourself a few times instead.
Remember that this is a process, just like anything else and it will take time to make these changes. Be encouraging and gentle with yourself. By practicing your positive mind set daily, your self-talk will eventually become less self-critical and you will feel more self-acceptance. You can start this change of thinking in one area of your life, like work for example, and allow it to slowly expand into the other areas of your life as well. By allowing yourself to make one small change, you could be taking the first step into improving many aspects of your life!
Image: Don Bersano. Bersano Photography. September 2017.