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Positive Thinking: An Important Skill for Stressful Times
by Christopher W. Crank, Executive Vice President Designee
If you are like me, the COVID-19 pandemic and social injustices happening in the United States have caused you to feel a flurry of emotions. At times, I have felt angry, sad, isolated, frustrated, helpless, and hopeless. On the other hand, I have felt joyful, grateful, thankful, hopeful, and proud. It appears as though we have witnessed some of the best and the worst of humanity. Through all of the stresses and troubles, I have tried to keep an overall positive attitude. This is because having a positive attitude and mindset are key to being able to developing resilience and being able to successfully cope with challenges. Positive thinking does not mean pretending that everything is “sunshine and rainbows”. It is also not ignoring problems and stressful situations, hoping that they will go away. Positive thinking means approaching problems in a more positive and productive way.
To understand what positive thinking looks like, it helps to know what negative thinking looks like. Characteristics of negative thinking include:
- Focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation. For instance, a person thinks their presentation was terrible because there was a technical difficulty. Positive thinking would acknowledge the technical issue but also include other aspects in the assessment of the presentation, such as audience engagement, the quality of the material, and how the presentation was received.
- Blaming only oneself when bad things happen. An example would be blaming oneself for the failure of a group project. The person believes that they are the only reason the project was unsuccessful. Positive thinking acknowledges the failure, but involves a more objective assessment of the causes, which would then be used to form a plan to avoid making the same mistake again.
- Using a catastrophizing approach. Catastrophizing is when someone exaggerates the negative impact of an event. For instance, when one thing goes wrong in the day, they may think that the whole day was terrible. Positive thinking, in this instance, would not mean ignoring the negative event. Rather, it would mean keeping the single negative event in the perspective or framework of the entire day. Positive thinkers acknowledge the positives and the negatives from the day.
- Believing things can only be good or bad. There is no middle ground. Perfectionism is a great example of this behavior. If it isn’t perfect, it’s terrible. In this example, positive thinking would involve performing a critical assessment of what worked well and what did not.
Positive thinking requires framing and perspective. Like many things, a person is not always a positive or a negative thinker. Attitudes and mindsets change according to the topic, day, and/or situation. If you find yourself in a negative mindset, there are several ways you can try to adjust your thinking:
- Think about the areas where you have the negative mindset. Try to think of ways that you can find positive aspects about the situation. Adjust your thinking to include an assessment of the positives and the negatives.
- Check yourself throughout the day with periodic assessments. If you find yourself stuck in a negative mindset, look for ways to put a positive spin on the situation. Keep things in perspective.
- Find humor around you. Look for funny situations in your everyday life. Watch a funny video, or have a humorous conversation with someone.
- Avoid negative people when possible. Associating with a negative person can bring down even the most positive people. We have all had experiences with a negative coworker or acquaintance. It is important to support a person who is being negative, but not at the expense of your well-being. If the person’s negativity goes beyond a reasonable venting session, try changing the subject. If the negativity persists, remove yourself from the person’s vicinity if possible. Use the negativity as a reason to take a quick break or get away. If the problem persists, you may need to kindly explain to them that their negativity is impacting you.
- Connect with those that support you. It’s easy to feel negative and isolated right now. It is harder to be social with each other. Make a concerted effort to connect with those who support you. When is the last time you talked to your best friend from high school? Give them a call. Participate in virtual events that are not related to work. Trivia nights or having a drink with friends, even if it’s on an online platform, can help you feel more connected.
- Take care of yourself. Your ability to take a positive approach and manage stress is diminished when you are not taking care of your body. Getting enough exercise and sleep are essential for maintaining the coping skills and resiliency needed to routinely approach stressful situations with positive thinking. Plan for your exercise like you plan for your professional activities. If you find yourself ruminating on something negative, use meditation, mindfulness, exercise, or a hobby to shift your thinking. Excessive nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol may exacerbate stress, so avoiding or minimizing use is also key to effectively managing stressful situations
- Avoid too much social media or news. It is hard to go through a day anymore without reading or seeing something upsetting in the news or on social media. As a society we have unprecedented access to information, which can be overwhelming. We can find ourselves getting more and more upset as we listen to the news or read more comments on a social media post. If you find yourself getting too upset, angry, or negative while consuming media, the best approach is to step away. In addition, think about how much time you want to spend on social media and the news. Set limits based on your assessment and stick to them.
Positive thinking requires you to assess your current mindset. Once the assessment is completed, you can begin to take steps to adjust the mindset. Know that it is OK to feel overwhelmed or negative about what is going on. The negative feelings are a normal and appropriate response to the situation. However, it is important to not let negative situations and thoughts drive your whole perspective and the framework of your day-to-day life. If you feel that you cannot get out of your negative mindset or if you are experiencing depression, know that it is OK to seek help. Reach out to a professional for assistance. Taking the first steps towards getting help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. A list of resources from the CDC is provided below.
CDC: Get immediate help in a crisis
- Call 911
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish), or text TalkWithUs for English or Hablanos for Spanish to 66746. Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico can text Hablanos to 1-787-339-2663.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish, or Lifeline Crisis Chat.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522
- National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4AChild (1-800-422-4453) or text 1-800-422-4453
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or Online Chat
- The Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 TTY Instructions
- Veteran’s Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Chat or text: 8388255
Find a health care provider or treatment for substance use disorder and mental health
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and TTY 1-800-487-4889
- Treatment Services Locator Website
- Interactive Map of Selected Federally Qualified Health Centers
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020, March 21). Stress management Stress basics. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/basics/stress-basics/hlv-20049495
- Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html