How optimistic are you? It can certainly feel as if we are surrounded by uncertainty. None of us may feel especially equipped to handle all this well – young people are dealing with a pervasive sense of uncertainty causing significant levels of frustration and anxiety. If mental health was a challenge for them before, it is exacerbated even further now. How do we go about supporting others when we can find ourselves overcome sometimes by the same feelings of despair and pessimism?
By nurturing optimism. Optimism is not about putting a shiny gloss on everything and feeling happy and positive, no matter what. It’s also not about positive thinking. It is much more pragmatic than that and is a skill you can build every single day.
Continuing this brand new series “7 Skills for Right Now”, designed to equip young people with guidance and support to enable them to thrive amidst uncertainty and change. These skills make a huge different in changing perceptions, raising awareness and strengthening confidence.
“The biggest emotion in creation is the bridge to optimism.” – Brian May
What are the 7 Skills? Grounded in research and in experiential learning workshops run with lawyers, medical practitioners and university students world-wide, we each have unlimited capacity to develop adaptability, critical thinking, empathy, integrity, optimism, proactivity and resilience. When everything around you is deeply uncertain, when you feel anxious, when you’re surrounded by rapid change, the best thing you can do is dig deep and harness these skills. They will enable all of us, to better manage this new environment and our constantly changing personal and professional landscape.
This week: OPTIMISM
In a world where we are experiencing constant change, challenges and uncertainty it may seem impossible to embrace optimism at all. Yet it is essential to do so. Taking charge of our mental health right now is one of the most important things we can do as without this we can’t navigate our way through uncertainty and move forwards. To build optimism we actually need to actively acknowledge the negative emotions and the negativity in our lives first before we can nurture strategies that will help us. When we then build this optimism muscle, we:
Increase resilience: Research has shown that when we experience positive emotions on the back of a stressful event, we bounce back more quickly and have a faster “cardiovascular recovery” time – our heart rate lowers and our blood pressure stabilises more quickly when we are able to be positive.
Increase immunity: there are several studies that link optimism and the ability to boost it with a stronger immune system because you become more resilient
Think more clearly: the way we feel influences the way we think. Positive emotions boost our problem solving abilities as well as our judgment, decision-making, cognitive flexibility and creativity. Staying positive will help you with day-to-day stuff too and just get you in a better position to approach things
So how do you do it?
Oliver Burkeman talks about the need to actually embrace negative thinking in order to be happier and resilient.
A crucial first step is to know that when things are not going well and when we are surrounded by uncertainty, our brain is programmed to look for the negative. Our brains are wired to protect us. That is why it easier for our minds to pick negative stimuli. We are automatically drawn to it and right now we are surrounded by it.
Second step is to know too, that when things are difficult, we tend to place our energy into the very things we cannot control. And it is energy – because the more energy we place into those things, the more miserable we feel. If we can get into the habit of focusing on the only thing we CAN control: our behaviour, closely followed by our thoughts and feelings, we can experience far more happiness. By doing this we actually often end up influencing our situation for the better. We can do this every single day. Here are some simple everyday things that have an immediate impact. Do these and encourage your students to do the same:
Practise gratitude – One of the most well researched boosters of optimism. Every day write down things that you are grateful for. At first this may seem strange but the more you do it the more things you will find! Even better, end your day by writing down your positive experiences. Even in the midst of extreme crisis these can be found. Start with what is around you and go from there.
Understand your triggers– part of good self-awareness is understanding anything that may trigger potential stress for you. This might be information, news and social media overload (do you check your phone compulsively?), feeling overwhelmed, or even a particular person at work who rubs you up the wrong way or keeps wanting to discuss the pandemic.
Manage stress levels – this is so important when it comes to optimism! Look after yourself and do this by creating slower mornings, switching off from technology regularly and finding more effective ways to manage it. Have measures in place to help yourself whether that’s as simple as getting sufficient sleep and eating nurturing foods or listening to a positive podcast instead of the news. If in doubt, practise kindness – both to yourself and to others.
Create positive experiences – recent research has found that the more positive experiences we can plan into our day, the bigger impact this has on our positivity levels. It’s the quantity that counts here so really simple boosts like enjoying a cup of tea and slice of cake, making time to meet with a friend (even online), going for a relaxing and energising walk. Get these into your every day as much as you possibly can!
Sharpen your mind – every day make time for something that stimulates your brain! We are hard-wired for learning and for challenges so find that interesting podcast, read a chapter of a book on a new subject or actively seek to learn something new. You may discover a new skill or interest too and it takes the focus away from news overwhelm.
Breathe – slow down more and use breathing to create a sense of calm. The “3, 4 5” method is great – breathe in for 3 counts, hold for 4 and breathe out for 5. This takes all of half a minute but doing it regularly boosts oxygen to the brain which gives an instant sense of wellbeing.
Drink more water – we are 70% water and we don’t drink enough of it. If you ever feel a bit sluggish or out of sorts, try drinking a glass of water first. We are often far more dehydrated than we think which has a negative effect on us physically and mentally.