Building my own resiliency has been key in growing my ability to bounce back when my wonky brain starts acting up, I find myself in stressful circumstances, or I just have a bad day. I won’t claim to be a mental health expert, but I will share with you tactics I’ve personally found to be effective.
Today’s resiliency focus is all about learning to find the good. Yup. Optimism.
You might be tempted to roll your eyes. I get it. There’s few things more annoying than someone telling you to “count your blessings” as a quick fix to anxiety and depression.
I’m not suggesting optimism is a quick fix. However, it has been linked to better performance of the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of a bunch of important stuff, like (just to name a few):
Organizing/processing information, prioritizing tasks/thoughts, regulating emotion/behavior, making decisions, predicting outcomes, concentrating, controlling impulses, learning from the past, and signaling to other parts of the brain to quiet environmental stimulation.
So you can see how this can affect our mental well being.
There are many ways to practice the art of optimism. I believe it’s all about finding which ways feel right for you. Here are some ways I’ve tried that you might want to give a shot as well:
Get creative with this. Rattling off the same 5 big things you’re thankful for every day likely won’t be as effective as challenging yourself to THANK outside the box (I’m proud of myself for that one lol). I do this by trying to find things I’m grateful for or enjoy about the current moment or place I’m in. So, if I’m on my way to work, I might list obvious things like owning a car and being able to drive, but then to push myself further, I might take a moment to appreciate how smooth the steering wheel feels or how evenly spaced the streetlights are. Yes, it can feel a little silly, especially at first, but it really has demonstrated the power to dramatically shift my mood. So I’m not stopping!
What exactly is an affirmation? An affirmation is more or less something positive you tell yourself for encouragement, motivation, or inspiration. I like to think of them as mini pep talks I give myself. Not a charismatic pep talk though. A simple and truthful one. I personally have found an affirmation has more power when you take ownership of it. And by that I mean, if you take the time to sit with yourself and identify what is stressing you out or making you feel bad about yourself, it’ll be easier to land on an affirmation that will actually address what is going on.
If you’re new to using affirmations or to getting in touch with yourself, I would suggest doing a general affirmation search on a site like Pinterest and seeing what stands out to you. Or, if you’re already in the affirmations game or generally pretty in touch with yourself, you can create your own (which is what I like to do, but I’m an introspective word person so that’s not surprising).
I have an example: I can be susceptible to thinking I need to be perfect at everything, all the time, from the very start, and if I’m not, I somehow feel like less of a person. So, if I have a day at my job (I teach 2 and 3 year olds and it’s my first year) where I felt like an approach I tried in response to a child’s behavior didn’t work, I can be hard on myself and feel defeated, like the worst teacher in the world. In response, I created this affirmation:: It is ludicrous to think you won’t make mistakes. Being teachable through your mistakes is what is important. It’s something simple and truthful I can tell myself to combat the lie that I need to be perfect, when perfectionism rears its ugly head.
KEEPING A WIN RECORD
We can get so focused on the things we messed up or what we wished we would have done. And there is a time and place for productive reflection on that. BUT, if we never focus on the wins, we get a skewed perspective of the situation or of ourselves. I’ve started making a list of 10 things I did well or progressed with at work every day. Focusing on my strengths and wins has not only begun to help me to shake off when I do make mistakes, but has also on several occasions helped me think of new ideas to try in areas that didn’t go so well. (After making the list of 10 wins, I list ONE thing that I’m going to try to do differently next time.)
FINDING THE SILVER LINING
What is the good that can be found in this bad situation or season? What is the good that can come from this bad situation or season? Finding the silver lining doesn’t have to mean you ignore the bad or invalidate your negative emotions. Bad days happen, in our brains or in our external circumstances. It is an unavoidable part of life. As hard as we work on our mental health, there will still sometimes be times where we feel super stressed, overly anxious, or just down in the dumps. Finding the silver lining can balance the scales a bit whenever that happens.
I’ve recently been having some morning depression. I think it’s just the effects of winter catching up with me. March is historically not a great month of my brain. Anyway, it’s not fun, and on top of it I’ve been feeling stressed. But when my strategies aren’t working to pull me out of a bad mood, I’ve been trying to give myself perspective by identifying the silver linings. Namely, all the good habits and mental muscles I’m building because and in spite of the bad mental spaces I’ve been finding myself in. I’ve started meditation and it’s awesome. I’m dragging myself into optimism even when I’d rather not and it’s getting easier and easier as I go. I’ve started working on staying present. Yeah, it might suck now, but there is still good coming from it and moments of breakthroughs and joy in it.
IMAGINING THE BEST CASE SCENARIO
Your girl right here is a worst case scenario girl! I can imagine the most nightmarish way ANYTHING could go wrong in full detail from start to finish and feel every single accompanying emotion felt by all people theoretically involved before you can say, “Hey, why are you staring off into space like that?” It comes easy to me. And, actually, I think there is a time and place for imagining the worst case scenario, like to plan for an emergency or even to use as a tool for anxiety (imagining the worst case scenario and how you would handle it can give you a sense of confidence, peace, and control). However, jumping to the worst case scenario all the time and setting up camp there is not good for anyone! Instead, ask yourself questions like What could go right? or How could this all come together? or It is possible things could go like this [insert ideal way here]. You start to see how many other outcomes are possible other than the one you’re dreading.
ACKNOWLEDGING WHERE YOU FELT ___________
Reflect on what you want to feel more of in your life. It could be something like peace, freedom, rest, creativity, confidence, or joy. Then, at the end of the day think back and identify where it is you felt some form of that thing, no matter how small. It doesn’t have to me monumental stuff. It could be as simple as how wonderful it felt when you held your warm cup of tea in the morning or the smile you exchanged with someone.
Whenever I do this, I start to see trends of what sorts of things get me to the feelings I crave for an “ideal life.” I realize again and again that the feeling of peace, for example, isn’t waiting for me as soon as a set of future circumstances are a certain way. Rather it’s available to me in some form now. And that makes me feel more content and alive. Plus, nailing down where I can find the feeling I want in the present helps me brainstorm where I can feel it more. Much more productive that wishful thinking!
When practiced consistently, optimistic habits become automatic responses to negative situations or moods that pop up. I’ve noticed they are becoming both a first line of defense against spiraling into a negative head space and a rescue team to pull me out of a dark mood before I’m too far in.
Does optimism come naturally to you or do you have to drag yourself there like me? What ways do you practice the art of optimism and what effects have you seen? I’d love to know.