Posted in CBT, compassion, lifestyle, mental health, psychology, wellbeing

Monday Matters: The psychology of optimism and how to become a glass half full kind of person

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

When I was struggling with anxiety and depression at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, I found myself being very negative and developing a very pessimistic view of the future. I was convinced things (I) would never get better and spent a lot of time wallowing in self pity and believing I couldn’t make myself well no matter how hard I tried. Now I’m feeling well, I’m happier and full of optimism and any challenges I face don’t feel like mountains that I’m unable to climb. I’ve always known that being optimistic is a key part of wellbeing but how can we remain that way all of the time, even when things are a little (or a lot) shitty? Today’s Monday Matters post looks at the psychology of optimism and how we can foster it no matter what life throws at us.

What is optimism?

According to the Oxford dictionary, optimism is ‘a feeling that good things will happen and that something will be successful; the tendency to have this feeling’. The exact opposite of this is ‘pessimism’ which is described as ‘a feeling that bad things will happen and that something will not be successful; the tendency to have this feeling’. Further to this, an optimist is ‘a person who always expects good things to happen or things to be successful’, whereas a pessimist is someone who ‘always expects bad things to happen’. I do think these are oversimplified definitions, however, as most people realistically know that over time, good and bad things will happen to us all and that it is our reaction to events and thoughts and feelings which can be described as mainly optimistic or pessimistic.

Why are some people optimists and others pessimists?

Early research into the subject tends to suggest that an optimistic or pessimistic view is largely an inherited biological trait, but more recent works have shown that environmental factors can influence us too. In other words, we are born one way or the other but our life experiences can impact on us too so, for example, we may learn to have a positive outlook from our childhood if we have an optimistic parent who encourages associated traits such as self belief, resilience and acceptance. Conversely, being surrounded by pessimists who believe they are hard done to, always see the worst in a situation and have a tendency to be negative overall can influence our thoughts and feelings about life too.

So, even if you are a ‘glass half empty’ type of person, it is possible to learn to be more optimistic or reduce pessimism by working on challenging and changing your thought processes. This does mean that if you have always been described as an optimistic, there is a chance that, with certain life experiences, you may develop a more pessimistic view (sometimes temporarily) but there are many ways of of combating this.

What are the benefits of being optimistic?

There are so many benefits of being of being an optimistic person in terms of physical and mental health. Optimists:

  • have healthier lifestyles, for example they exercise more, have a balanced diet, are less likely to smoke or binge drink and just generally make better choices with regard to their health
  • have better quality relationships with family, friends, partner or co-workers
  • have more life satisfaction, happiness and high levels of psychological and physical wellbeing
  • are good problem solvers and tend to strive for what they want as they believe themselves to be capable of high levels of achievement
  • are more motivated
  • have better self esteem
  • are generally more successful
  • accept their failures and learn from them
  • have a better immune system
  • have lower cortisol levels (stress hormone)
  • actively pursue their goals
  • recover from physical illnesses more quickly
  • take less time to recover from surgery
  • less likely to have a stroke or cardiovascular diseases
  • have lower blood pressure
  • emerge from difficult circumstances with less distress than pessimists
  • see setbacks as temporary events caused by circumstances
  • are more likely to engage in health related self care activities such as regular check ups

How can we learn to be more optimistic?

The idea of learned optimism is a concept developed by a leading American psychologist called Martin Seligman.

learned optimism involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view.

Seligman

He believes that the positivity associated with being an optimist can and should be cultivated and that being optimistic is a key part of good health and wellbeing. So, pop on your positivity glasses and read my suggestions on how to train or rewire your brain.

Shift your focus – instead of thinking about what you can’t control, focus on what you can instead. In any situation, there are things that can’t be changed and things that can. If you spend your time obsessing over the former, you will quickly become stressed and frustrated. However, if you look at what you do have control over, you can control the controllables and forget about the rest.

See setbacks as temporary – it’s not the end of the world if something goes wrong or doesn’t go the way you expected, it’s something to be learnt from. Resolve to come back better and stronger!

Regain your sense of control – focus on what you can do to improve a situation and believe in your ability to make things better rather than focusing on the barriers. This is in contrast to ‘learned helplessness’ associated with pessimism.

Watch out for unhelpful phrases – talk such as ‘I never…’, ‘I can’t…’, ‘I always mess up…’ etc is not helpful and can create a negative mindset. Try to catch yourself saying them and come up with some alternatives which are more positive – ‘I might be able to…’, ‘I could…’ etc.

Think about the company you keep – some people seem to complain about everything and never have a positive word to say. After so many minutes of talking to them, you might find you start being negative too. It’s almost like the pessimism is contagious. Conversely, spending time with a optimist, can encourage feelings of optimism and make life seem much more rosy. I’m not saying cull everyone from your life who isn’t a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, but you might want to think about who you spend most of your time with.

Avoid overgeneralising – After something has gone wrong for you, have you ever found yourself thinking or saying that the world is conspiring against you, or everyone has got it in for you? Remember that one set back in one aspect of your life does not mean that everything is going wrong. Neither does it mean that you are unlucky or any of those other things that might pop into your head or out of your mouth!

Take a balanced approach – In every situation there are positives and negatives. Unfortunately, the society that we live in often encourages us to focus on the more negative side and ignore the many positives. I like to do some gratitude journaling each evening to focus on the positives in my day. I might also have a few negatives that become problems to work on solving, but I try not to dwell on what I can’t change or those minor irritations which we all have.

How can we stay optimistic during tough times?

As I said earlier, when I was struggling with my mental health for so many months, I found it very difficult to be optimistic in relation to the present moment and the future. But there are ways of remaining positive, even during periods of difficulty. So, what could I have done differently? Some of my online reading has suggested that optimism doesn’t require you to brush aside anxious and negative feelings, but rather to accept them whilst being hopeful about what the future will bring. Obviously, this is easier said than done when you are consumed with difficult emotions, but the idea is that you work super hard to acknowledge that things are difficult right now, but try to hold on to the belief that things won’t always be like this. Here’s some ideas of ways that this can be made easier (not easy of course, but having an I can get through this attitude is a big part of it):

  • try to practise self compassion – accept that things are a struggle right now, but also remind yourself that you’ve got through difficulties before and you can do so again
  • disrupt the negative thought cycle – focus on the breath, change your environment (go for a walk in nature), confide in someone you trust about how you are feeling and seek a fresh perspective
  • jot down some coping statements e.g. I can take this one day at a time, this is frightening and I can handle it, I am a resilient person and I can get through this etc.
  • practise gratitude – even when things are hard, there’s always small things to be grateful for – the friend who texted to say she’s thinking of you, the tranquillity as you sit drinking your coffee in your sunny garden, your warm coat on a chilly day etc. At certain times, it might be difficult to focus on the positives, but it’s not completely impossible and taking the time to be grateful has been shown to really help.

Final words…

I hope today’s Monday Matters has been helpful in some way and that you will give at least one of the ideas a go. Lockdown is beginning to ease now but there is still a little uncertainty around about the future making things difficult. As I type this, I’m feeling positive and optimistic, yet whilst I was unwell, things looked bleak. So, it just goes to show that things can and will get better.

Take care until next time,

Posted in lifestyle, mental health, productivity, psychology, wellbeing

Monday Matters: The power of positive affirmations and how to create your own

Today’s Monday Matters blog post is all about the helpfulness of positive affirmations and how you can write your own tailor made statements to re-wire your brain and start working towards the life you want. It discusses different types of affirmations which can help develop your body confidence, increase your self belief, encourage you to reach your goals, enable you to accept yourself and others and be grateful for what you have whilst working towards what you want. It also answers questions about how to choose specific affirmations, how to get them to work, how to word them for maximum effectiveness and how to use affirmations when you are struggling with your mental health. Finally, towards the end of the article, I include some of my current affirmations and why I chose them so you can see for yourself how powerful they are for me and can be for you.

What are positive affirmations and how do they work?

Affirmations are phrases which we repeat to ourselves either out loud or in our thoughts. They can be absolutely anything, sometimes good, for example I am great at my job, I can do this etc. but quite often can be bad, unhelpful or completely self-critical, for example, I’m so stupid, I always get things wrong etc. Positive affirmations, though, have the aim of over-riding negative beliefs and negative self-talk and creating positivity and a much better mind set. When said regularly, they can change your thoughts, your way of thinking and how you feel about yourself and life in general. They work by re-wiring your brain to think good things about the world and your place in it.

Different types of affirmations

There are lots of different types of affirmations to choose from and it all depends what you want to focus on. For example, you might want to improve your body confidence, become more successful, increase your happiness levels, be more accepting of yourself or others, combat fear, anxieties or insecurities, lose weight, be more resilient, celebrate your good points etc. Whatever you want in your life or for yourself, there are positive statements to help you.

So, how do I go about creating my own positive affirmations that work?

First of all, you need to think about what you want to see in your life right now. Maybe you want to be more confident and assertive at work. Perhaps you are keen to be more grateful or more positive. Or, you might want to practise self love and kindness. Jot down what’s important to you at the moment or create some goals that you want to work on and start to think about the kind of affirmations that would reflect these ideas.

Key features of good affirmations:

  1. Present tense e.g. I am relaxed and calm, I am worthy of self care and compassion, I take things one step at a time. This makes sure that they are powerful as they are about the here and now.
  2. Short and to the point. This makes them easier to say and easier to remember as you go about your day.
  3. Full of positivity. Try to avoid using negative vocabulary. E.g. rather than ‘I am not anxious’, you could write ‘I am calm and relaxed’. Instead of writing ‘I don’t eat junk food’ you might go for ‘I eat a balanced and healthy diet’.
  4. Powerful and emotional words. Try to use the best emotive vocabulary to can think of e.g. Everything in my life is wonderful, I am an amazing writer, I am incredibly proud of all that I achieve in my life etc.
  5. Make use of your own voice. You can find a wide array of affirmations online e.g. on Pinterest and Instagram. Some of them, you will be immediately attracted to the idea of but if you do use or adapt them, make sure that the vocabulary used is the kind of thing that you would like to say to yourself and that the words within the statement are part of your personal vocabulary e.g. It’s no good saying ‘I am a highly motivated person’ if you would usually use the term ‘hard worker’.
  6. Believability. If you want your affirmations to work, you need to create statements that you can readily believe in. For example, it’s no good writing one that says ‘I am super fit’ if you are only just beginning your fitness journey. It’s better to create something that says where you are at right now or where you can feasibly be soon if you improve your confidence levels e.g. ‘I am getting stronger and fitter every day’ or ‘My fitness levels are improving each day’. Rather than ‘I am always confident at speaking to an audience’ you could try ‘My confidence in presenting my ideas to others is getting so much better.’

Consistency is key with getting your affirmations to manifest positive change in your life so make sure you say them regularly. Add them to your morning routine and assess the effect that they are having as part of a reflection process in the evening. You might even do some journalling on them in your bullet journal or other planner.

How to use positive affirmations to get you through a mental health bad patch

As some of my regular readers will know, I have suffered from episodes of anxiety and depression throughout my adult life and know how easy it is to get into a very negative mindset when you are struggling. I also know that that at times of really low mood, it is super hard to find anything positive to think let alone say out loud. However, if you at least try to treat yourself with kindness and compassion and accept where you are right now, you can find ways to come out of your mental health blip. In the past, I’ve used a small number of positive affirmations, chosen and written with the help of my wonderfully supportive husband, which have helped me and kept my mind focused on resilience and recovery. Below is the page which I produced in my bullet journal at a time in the past when I was having a hard time.

As you can see, they generally focus on accepting myself for who I am, recognising that I have it within me to get better and knowing that I am loved by others. Now, I know at the time, I found it difficult to say these affirmations and I remember tears forming as I read through them the first few times, but it did get easier after a while and I can confirm that I was strong enough, the bad patch did pass and I did get through it and come out of the other side. I’m not saying that the affirmations were the main reason that I got better but they certainly helped with the recovery process, a lot!

Some tips for creating positive affirmations when life is hard:

  • Think about the negative thoughts that enter your mind or negative self talk that you find yourself saying and try to turn it around e.g. ‘I’m so weak and pathetic’ could become ‘I am brave and strong’, ‘I’m never going to get better’ could be re-written as ‘This feeling will pass’. ‘I can’t do this any more’ can be changed to ‘I have the ability to cope’.
  • Check out Pinterest and look for affirmations which suit your current situation e.g. search affirmations for self love and kindness if you find yourself saying nasty things about yourself, look for confidence building affirmations if you find yourself lacking in this area right now.
  • Think about how unique you are and what is special about you. Ask for help on this if you need to from family members or friends. Write down your qualities in first person e.g. I am creative, I am kind to others, I always try my best etc.

Some of my current positive affirmations and why I chose them

  • I run a successful Etsy shop and customers love my products and personalised service. This one was chosen because I regularly have moments of self doubt when I haven’t had many orders, when my visitor count in low or I don’t get any feedback for a while.
  • Readers enjoy my blog posts and find them interesting and insightful. One to remind me that people like the content on my blog and I should keep going with it because I love writing it and I’m really passionate about making it a success.
  • I accept myself. Although I’m always working on self development stuff and new ways to manage my mental health, it’s really important that as I do this, I accept the way I am right now, just as others do.
  • My body is getting stronger and more toned every day. I’ve got a few affirmations related to fitness on my list right now and this is because I’ve recently be getting myself a little upset and disheartened about the fact that I haven’t really lost any weight despite working really hard. Both my husband and I have noticed my body changing and really toning up so this is a little reminder to myself to keep going.

I hope you have found today’s post useful and it has provided you with the encouragement needed to have a go at creating your own positive affirmations. Let me know in the comments what you want to work on right now and maybe share a couple of affirmations that you think you should add to your list.

Posted in compassion, life hacks, psychology, wellbeing

Monday matters: Procrastination and 10 ways to minimise it

The second instalment of my Monday Matters series is focused on procrastination, something which effects most, if not all of us on a fairly regular basis. In fact, studies have shown that around 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators! In this post, I will consider what procrastination is and why we procrastinate, the forms it takes, and most importantly, steps we can take to minimise it in a bid to become more productive and achieve our goals.

What is procrastination?

The act or habit of procrastinating is where we put off or delay doing something, in particular a task which is unpleasant or burdensome, but which really requires our immediate attention. It can take on many forms such as not tackling the pile of ironing you’ve been meaning to do for the past week, leaving a bill payment until the last minute, avoiding a difficult conversation with someone at work or telling yourself you’ll start developing a more healthy lifestyle starting next week. Whatever it looks like, procrastinating can pre-occupy our thoughts and be a cause of stress, anxiety and even depression. It can even take over our lives and have a huge negative impact on our future.

Signs of procrastination include filling your day with low priority tasks, leaving a high priority item on your ‘to do’ list for a long time (for example, if you use the bullet journal system, you may repeatedly migrate a particular item to the next day or following week), making endless cups of tea, coffee or snacks, reading emails lots of times but not actually actioning any of them, or waiting for the right time or the right mood to get started with something.

So, why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination is a voluntary and unnecessary delay in undertaking something, but most people struggle to control it. There can be different reasons for not undertaking a task and these generally relate to poor time management, fear of failure (or sometimes even success), lack of motivation related to low mood or an unrealistic view of the self.

For some of us, as we think about starting a task, we can develop feelings of anxiety about getting it done. This can then cause us to become overwhelmed and then avoidance starts. Not getting the task done then becomes a source of guilt and shame and these negative feelings create a never ending vicious cycle.

Perfectionists are also frequent procrastinators. Because they hold such high standards, they often fear being unable to complete a task perfectly, so end up put it off for as long as they possibly can. This performance related anxiety causes them to seek out much less threatening or ‘safer’ options.

How can we minimise the effects of procrastination?

The first step to minimise procrastination is to begin to be more self compassionate. Forgive yourself for procrastinating and try not to feel guilty about it. Accept that everyone procrastinates at times and it’s okay to do so. Also, remember that it is particularly common in people who suffer from issues with anxiety or low mood.

When you have developed more understanding towards yourself, you can then work on your ability to take responsibility for your actions (or inaction!) and begin to believe in your ability to make small changes to enable yourself to be more productive. Here are some ideas I’ve collected from my compassion group work and from my reading:

  1. Ignore your mood and just get started – it doesn’t matter if you feel like doing it or if it seems like the right time, some tasks just have to be done. And besides, it might take you less time than you expected or you might feel a whole lot better when you get it out of the way!
  2. Break a project down into small manageable steps that can be accomplished – just a little bit of progress towards a goal will help us to feel better about the task and increase our self esteem and motivation to continue.
  3. Do some planning – at the start of each day, create a timeline of how you intend to spend each hour and try to stick to it as best you can, for longer projects, set deadlines for each task. That way, if you don’t finish what you had planned for today or this week it will affect your future plans.
  4. Get the worst or hardest bit done first – as Mark Twain once said ‘If it is your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.’ By completing your most important task first you’ll have the satisfaction of this achievement which will hopefully provide you with the motivation to get even more done.
  5. Think about your use of language – use positive affirmations as a way forward e.g. I can eat healthily, rather than I need to go on a diet, I am someone who exercises rather than I want to do some exercise. This helps to change the distance between yourself and your behaviour.
  6. Set time limits and then reward yourself for sticking with it e.g. 40 minutes of work and then I’ll have coffee, a biscuit and 10 minutes catch up on Facebook, when I’ve tidied and cleaned the living room, I’ll sit back and watch my favourite TV show.
  7. Minimise distractions – put your phone in another room, turn off your notifications, close all of your social media and email tabs, work in a clean and clutter free environment. Choose a place where you are most likely to be productive. This could be your home, the library or a quiet café.
  8. Change your internal dialogue – instead of fixating on how much you dread a given task and forcing yourself to do it, try changing your mindset, deciding in advance that its completion will make you happy. Also, rather than using phrases such as “I need to…” and “I have to…” try changing to “I chose to…” or “I would like to…” as these imply that you have a choice and help you to feel empowered in making a decision to act.
  9. Let others know what your goals are – telling family and friends what you want to achieve can help in several ways. Firstly, it can hold you accountable, and secondly, they can offer you support and encouragement along the way.
  10. Remember, done is better than perfect – focus on just completing a task rather than getting hung up on minute details. Then you can celebrate the fact that it is finished. You can always go back to it to make improvements another time.

I hope you’ve found today’s blog post helpful in terms of developing your understanding of procrastination and how we can minimise its effects. If you have any more tips, please do share them in the comments.

Posted in CBT, compassion, mental health, Mindfulness, psychology, wellbeing, wellness

Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? The unhelpfulness of ‘I should’ and ‘I must’ expectations

As part of my compassion group learning over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking unhelpful and more helpful thinking styles. I’ve previously talked about the psychology of using the term ‘I can’t’ (click here to read this post) when we really mean we find something difficult. In today’s wellbeing post, I’m going to focus on the pressure we put on ourselves using terms such as ‘I should’ and ‘I must’.

At the beginning of the year, I went through a really difficult patch with my mental health. I was suffering from debilitating anxiety and everything was a constant struggle. I was having panic attacks and my mood was very low. I spent a lot of time worrying that I wasn’t going to get better and found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to do anything but cry. I’m pleased to report that I’m now feeling much better and life is good. However, my improved mood and elevated motivation levels did start to cause a few issues with my self talk and my thinking and it is this which today’s post focuses on.

As soon as I started to feel better, I totally went into what is known as ‘drive mode’ and felt like I needed to make up for lost time by doing it all and not stopping. I had finally found the joy in achieving things in my day and my head was full of ideas and thoughts. I was writing huge to do lists and spent my time flitting from activity to activity in a frenzied way from when I got up at 6.00am to when I went to bed at 10pm. My head was filled with talk such as ‘I need to…’, ‘I have to…’ ‘I should…’ and all of the other terms associated with the intense desire to be productive and get a buzz from it.

The therapists in our compassion group helped us to see, however, that constantly being in drive mode and making these unrealistic assumptions of how to live can be really unhelpful. Terms such as I need to, I must, I have to and I should, put undue pressure on ourselves to perform and create expectations of ourselves that are very difficult to keep up with.

The effects of using these rigid terms have been studied by a number of psychologists and was a key part of the work of Albert Ellis. He coined the term ‘musterbation’ which has certainly stuck in my mind since reading about it online! The following quote I found online sums up the effects nicely:

“Musterbation” is a term coined by famed psychologist Albert Ellis to describe the phenomenon whereby people live by a set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world. For most of us, these rules come out in a series of should statements that we repeat to ourselves over and over again. These “should” and “shouldn’t” statements leave us feeling bad about ourselves because they set up standards that we cannot realistically meet. They also leave us feeling frustrated and hurt by others when they inevitably fail to fulfill our expectations. Recognizing this habit to set rules for yourself, others and the world gives you the opportunity to relieve some of the stress these messages cause. When dealing with “should” statements, it is important to keep in mind that while it may be nice to reach your goals and be treated the way you want all the time, we are human and live in an imperfect world. Therefore, the pressure to be anything all the time is more likely to cause harm than good.

Rowan Center BLOG, 2015.

If you would like to read more of their interesting article click here.

I’m now much more aware of when I’m using these terms (I haven’t stopped using them and I’m very much conditioned to their use, I’m just more mindful of when I do) and I try to reframe my thinking to be more helpful. This is taking time, but I do think it’s a really important step in increasing my good mental health. I’ve also noticed that my husband is fond of saying ‘I’ve got to…’ ‘I need to…’ and the like and so we laugh about it and then help each other to create more compassionate thoughts and beliefs too. Here are some examples and how I’ve re-articulated things:

  • I need to get rid of all of the weeds in the garden this week >>>> it would be great if I found some time this week to do a little bit of weeding as it would make the garden look a little nicer
  • I must take new and improved photographs of my products today >>>> If the lighting is okay today, I might take a few new photos of a couple of my products and upload them to Etsy
  • I really should get all of that washing done whilst the weather is okay >>>> it would be good if I did some washing this week as the basket is getting pretty full. I might do a load tomorrow and hang it out in the sunshine

You’ll notice that I’ve been more gentle and kind with my expectations too as another way of putting less pressure on myself. This is a big part of being more self compassionate which is what our wonderful therapy group is all about.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting and helpful. Maybe it’s made you think about the expectations you set and how you might re-frame your thoughts. Perhaps over the next week, you might notice yourself using ‘I must…’, ‘I need to…’ and ‘I should…’ a lot and you might try to be more mindful of what you say or think. It would be great if you let me know in the comments, but remember, you don’t ‘need to’ or ‘have to’, you just might like to or want to!

Much love and kindness.