Written by Dr. Mark Winwood
Dr Mark Winwood is a leading figure in the mental health field and AXA Health’s Consultant Psychologist.
Are you a glass hall-full or half-empty sort of person? If it’s the latter and you’re finding it difficult to be positive, don’t be too hard on yourself! It’s how we’re programmed to react to challenging – and potentially threatening – situations. The good news is that there are things we can do to change our mind set to a more optimistic one.
AXA Health's Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services, Dr Mark Winwood and Mental Health Lead, Eugene Farrell explain why thinking negatively is our natural default setting, how if left unchecked this can impact our mood and underlying mental wellbeing and how, by using some simple tips and techniques it’s possible to choose a more positive outlook, which can help boost our mood and our overall happiness.
Why negative thinking is our natural default and how it can affect how we feel about ourselves
Eugene explains how we’re evolutionary programmed to think in a negative way. “What we needed to do in the past was remember negative events or threats to our survival, in order to avoid them in the future.
“What’s more we’re always scanning for threats, which means positivity isn’t a natural mind set for many of us.”
This can have its problems.
“Our brain isn’t really doing us any favours when it’s constantly looking for threats”, says Mark. “And when we’re going through times of challenge or stress, those deep furrows we plough towards negative thinking can seem even more apparent.”
There are a few thinking traps we might find ourselves in:
First, we may become self-critical, berating and even bullying ourselves for not being good enough.
We may also catastrophise, focusing on the worst case scenario, rather than perhaps the most likely, or rational outcome. This is particularly common in highly stressful or alien circumstances.
Or we may compare ourselves to others who we believe are coping well and then give ourselves a hard time for not measuring up. This is something that can be exacerbated by social media posts that portray an idyllic – and often highly edited - version of people’s real lives.
“If we find ourselves in these thinking patterns, it’s not long before our mood starts to deteriorate,” says Mark.
It’s important to remember there’s a strong link between what we think about, our internal dialogues and how we feel.
How to develop a more positive frame of mind
Despite a natural predisposition towards negative thinking, we can change our outlook to a ‘glass half full’ one, as Eugene explains: “Positivity comes from within and it’s something we can change. In a positive frame of mind we’re more optimistic about things; we’re not actively looking for those threats that were once programmed into us.”
Mark agrees, adding “having an optimistic frame of mind gives us hope and that things will turn out alright. This can lift our mood, provide an energy boost, a sense of wellbeing and goodwill to others, and even allow us to be more creative.”
All of these things also help us to be more open-minded and demonstrate a willingness to see other people’s opinions as useful, which give us an opportunity to learn and grow. As a result we can have a broader outlook and become less judgemental or biased.
So how do we go about switching our mind set?
We can’t always control what we think but we can shift our focus
We can’t always control what we think but we can choose to shift our attention. Mark explains: “What we feel in the present moment is determined by the attention we give to what we think. None of our thoughts can really hurt or damage us unless we choose to give them our attention.”
Following the steps below can help us regain control of our thoughts and shift our focus.
Step 1 – Identify
We’re thinking beings, and we always have thoughts zooming around our heads, but which thought are you attending to at this particular time? Mark offers the example of it perhaps being “a self-blaming thought for not being able to support a relative because we’re in lockdown.”
“By identifying a negative thought we’re already one step closer to being able to manage it in a different way. We’re giving ourselves the option of choice, to do something different here.”
Step 2 – Step back
Stepping back helps us to pace ourselves and look at the problem from a more rational perspective, rather than a reactionary one, led by our emotions and natural instincts. When we step back it also gives us some time to think in a clear way. The best way to do this is to take some deep purposeful breaths, in order to clear out the clutter from the intelligent part of our brain. Our mindful breathing tips can help with this.
Step 3 – Redirect
Mark explains that this step is “where we really harness our choices.” We can start thinking about the problem “as though it’s sitting in a different part of the room and outside of us. By questioning ‘what is this really all about?’ and ‘what are our expectations here?’ we can begin to decide whether this problem is actually in our control and take appropriate action.” We can also try to be kinder to ourselves.
To go back to the example of someone blaming themselves for not being able to support a relative due to self-isolation, clearly the type of support we can offer is limited by circumstances beyond our control. We can’t blame ourselves for the things we’re not able to do. Instead we can look for other ways to support them, for example staying in regular contact, arranging food deliveries, or finding out what services are available to them locally.
Step 4 – Move forward
By using these steps we can take action and move forward. We’re shifting our perspective and choosing to redirect our thoughts, which in turn can help us think more positively.
Developing mental strength
Positivity takes practice! If you want to build muscle it’s not going to happen vernight. You need to train regularly in order to see results. The same is true when it comes to developing our mental strength.
As Mark says: “If we want to develop positive pathways in our brain that we can tap into whenever we need to, we need to work at it. Regularly practicing the steps outlined above and other tips in this article will help make those new neural pathways become embedded.”
Eugene agrees and highlights that “when people get negative all the time they forget what it feels like to feel positive.” These exercises can help people reconnect with that positive part of themselves that may be hiding away.”
There’s a quote from Winston Churchill that Mark feels describes optimism really well: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. He explains: “We may be hard-wired naturally to be more pessimistic than optimistic, but actually there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that if we can rewire our neurology and teach ourselves to become more optimistic, positive outcomes can come from this.”
The belief that things can be positive gives us the opportunity and willingness to have a go at things. On the whole, optimists see negative experiences as temporary and potentially something they can learn from. They see something going wrong as specific in that moment in time rather than an inevitability.
In other words, where an optimist might think ‘This could work and if it doesn’t I’ll try a different way’, a pessimist may take the view that ‘it’s not worth trying because everything always goes wrong.’ Mark highlights: “If you can see negativity itself as temporary and something that isn’t going to invade your other ways of thinking, it’s easier to see a way past it.”
What else can we do to stay positive?
Humour – as Eugene explains “When you’re not feeling great your sense of humour tends to go, and you don’t find things as funny. This in turn affects our positivity and mood, so it’s important to try to find humour in things. Focus on the good and try not to react to the bad.”
Random acts of kindness – there’s a great thing about doing things for other people that goes beyond the act itself and the benefit to them. If we give more, show kindness to someone or volunteer, for example, we experience feelings of joy that can really help boost a positive frame of mind. And it doesn’t stop there! See our article for more health benefits of being kind.
Think about what you’re grateful for – Mark asks: “What’s giving you a sense of gratitude right now? It is your health, your family, your friends or your work?” He suggests spending 15 minutes just once a week, writing down 3 things we’re grateful for. It helps shift our perspective and gives us that sense of optimism and a positive boost.”
Connect with those that support you – We all struggle with negative thoughts at times, so connecting with those that give us the positive affirmation we may need is really important when we feel our mood start to tip as a result. And remember that giving someone the opportunity to be kind to you will give them a boost too!
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The health benefits of being kind - AXA Health