There has been no shortage of challenges in the past two years. The global COVID-19 pandemic continues, bringing with it uncertainty and hardship. All the while, access to our usual coping strategies and support systems are still spotty at best. It can be difficult to maintain a positive mindset, and yet there are so many benefits to doing so.
According to the Mayo Clinic, engaging in positive thinking can improve many areas of our health. These practices can increase our lifespan and lower rates of depression. Positive thinking can even reduce our risk for colds, improve our cardiovascular health, and armor us with coping skills during times of hardship.
Of course, we don’t want to force positivity on ourselves or others. There is such a thing as “toxic positivity.” No matter how much a friend or family member might be struggling, or how difficult their situation might be, we cannot force them into a positive mindset. Statements like, “Sure things are bad, but someone always has it worse” and “but you have so much to be grateful for” often invalidate or minimize the pain we or others experience. Even said with good intentions, they often cause more harm than good.
So how do we honor our difficult experiences as unique individuals while also cultivating positivity? It’s important to acknowledge and validate the challenges in our lives and take proactive steps to help us face those challenges with realistic expectations and renewed energy. While this comes more naturally to some than others, we can all engage in some simple practices to cultivate a positive mindset. They include:
Mindfulness can take several forms, such as prayer, meditation, or other structured practices. However, mindfulness can also include simple steps, like checking in with yourself. Take a moment to scan your body—are you holding stress or tension anywhere? Perhaps your jaw is clenched, your shoulders are hunched, or your breath is shallow. Releasing that tension with a few stretches or deep breaths can help lift your mood. It’s also a way to honor and process what you are experiencing at the moment, rather than minimizing what you’re going through or trying to push negative emotions down. Repressing our negative emotions generally leads to those emotions festering and growing, and often we try to numb those emotions in unhealthy ways.
Another goal of mindfulness is to stay focused on the present moment. Rather than dwelling on the past or stewing in anxiety about the future, we can take a moment to focus on the here and now. Asking ourselves, “What is something I can do right now, at this moment, that will help me feel better or make my life easier tomorrow?” can retrain our brain to focus on the present moment.
Another important part of maintaining a positive mindset is cultivating resiliency. Resiliency is our ability to “bounce back” from hardship. While some people are more naturally resilient than others, again, we can all take steps to develop our resilience.
Research shows that resilient people tend to have strong social connections. When faced with challenges, they identify steps that they can take to help improve the situation, or at least minimize the negative outcomes. They maintain a realistic mindset, understanding that what they see on television or social media is often not realistic for most people. After catching ourselves in negative thoughts, we can perform a basic reality check to see if those thoughts are accurate. If they’re not, we should ask ourselves what’s a more realistic or helpful thought we could replace it with. If this is a challenge, a therapist can be a great resource to help reframe those negative thought patterns.
Stress is an inevitable part of all our lives, and without healthy outlets to manage that stress, it can continue to build and impact all facets of our lives. Part of cultivating a positive mindset is having the plan to cope with stress. This includes things like journaling, talking to a trusted friend or family member, and setting boundaries, saying no to things you don’t have the capacity to commit to.
There are two practices that research shows are particularly powerful for managing stress: deep breathing and moving your body. Deep breathing works the fastest—just a few deep belly breaths will turn off the “flight or fight” response in your nervous system and get you back to a calmer baseline. Moving your body tends to offer longer-lasting results, as it helps us burn through the stress hormones that are released during times of stress. If you aren’t able to move much due to physical limitations, visualizing this movement can offer similar benefits.
Making time for fun and play
A critical piece to managing stress and building resilience is to incorporate fun and play into our lives. Often this is one of the first things to be cut from the schedule when we feel overwhelmed, but ironically it’s what builds our capacity for hardships the most.
Find the time to belt out your favorite musical numbers in the car, wrestle with your kids, put together that puzzle that’s been gathering dust in the closet, or rewatch that movie or TV show that always makes you laugh out loud. Finding that time for fun and joy will refill your tank and make it easier to keep a positive mindset in the future.
Being Positively YOU
We are all deserving of joy and positivity in our lives. While we often can’t control our circumstances, we can honor ourselves and find ways to respond that manage the stress of the situation, build resilience in the face of difficult times, and create moments of happiness and joy. We hope the tips in this article will help you be positively YOU.