The Glass Half-Full: The Case for Optimism

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These days, it seems cynicism is practically synonymous with wisdom. With the bulk of human knowledge only a couple of swipes and taps away, we have become a generation of fact-checking realists. The bliss of ignorance is a thing of the past, and optimism, once considered a valuable personality trait, is now a pleasant delusion reserved for those who don’t know any better.

Right?

Wrong, actually. In fact, not only is optimism a useful mindset for everyone, recent research has shown that practicing optimism could actually rewire the brain to reduce anxious tendencies, optimizing our decision making processes and actually making our futures brighter. (Read all about the study here: http://www.dailyillini.com/article/2015/10/anxiety-disorders).

Using optimism as a technique for conquering anxiety makes intuitive sense: it’s impossible to be anxious and optimistic at the same time, because anxiety relies on the “what-if?” questions, the fear of potentially dangerous or uncomfortable scenarios, to hijack our choices and emotions. Imagining future events as positive, useful experiences is exactly the opposite approach. When we’re habituated to making decisions from a place of anxiety, it can take a lot of mindful self-awareness to change our outlook, but, for me at least, knowing that the work I’m doing can actually change my brain on a structural level to make my life easier in the future makes it all seem that much more worthwhile. Mindfulness, like any other skill, takes practice and effort, and even developing the awareness to notice when you’re being negative as it’s happening (instead of hours or days later– hindsight truly is 20/20!) can feel overwhelming.

Meditation is a great place to start. Taking even 5 or 10 minutes out of your day to sit quietly and observe and release your thoughts without engaging with them is excellent practice. Begin with a simple “noting” exercise: First, find somewhere relatively quiet, where you won’t be disturbed. Sitting comfortably on a cushion or chair (or just cross-legged on the floor, if that’s comfortable for you), place your hands, palms facing up in a gesture of openness, on your thighs. Slowly breathe in and out, and try to focus on the breath. You can find a physical place in your body to focus your attention (feeling the breath pass in and out of your nostrils, for example, or the expansion and contraction of your belly), or just focus on the sensation of breathing as a whole, if that’s easier. As you breathe in, think the actual words “breathing in”, stretching the sounds for as long as it takes to fill your lungs completely. Then, as you breathe out, think the words “breathing out”, again elongating the sounds to fill the entire length of the breath. Really hear the words in your mind, allowing them to soothe and center you. When you’re comfortable with this technique (it could take a few minutes or a few weeks– everyone is different, and that’s ok!), try to notice every time your thoughts stray from this breath-noting. When you catch yourself thinking, gently say to yourself, “thinking”, and return to noting the breath. You can be more specific, if you like: when you notice yourself going into planning mode, thinking about or anticipating the future (whether it be mentally preparing the meal you’ll eat five minutes from now, or working on your five year plan), gently label the digression. Tell yourself, “planning”, and return to noting the breath. Don’t judge yourself, just notice the wandering of your thoughts and gently guide them back to the breath. You can also use labels for “ruminating” (dwelling on past events), “judging” (judging your practice), or make up whatever other labels you want. Basically, every time you notice your thoughts straying, label what’s going on, and gently guide yourself back to focusing on the breath. At first, it will probably take a little while before you even notice that you’ve lost focus– the mind loves to think, to form associations and develop ideas and hop back and forth between memories. Sometimes you’ll find something you really want to think about. Let it go. It will come back to you. Eventually, you’ll get to a place where you start to notice yourself getting distracted as it’s happening, rather than afterward. When that happens, great! You’ve made enormous progress. This awareness can carry over into your everyday life, allowing you to observe yourself in the moment as you get caught up in the downward spiral of anxiety and giving you the opportunity to replace those negative thoughts with positive ones. It might sound silly or hard or downright delusional, but if you allow yourself to give mindful optimism a try, it can really help. I have been meditating each morning and consciously practicing mindfulness in my daily life for several months now, and I truly believe it’s been more helpful to me than medication or therapy.

For those of you who, like me, are rarely without your iPhone (I’m working on it!), there are a bunch of apps out there that claim to help with anxiety, reduce stress, or offer guided meditations, body scans, and yoga. I haven’t tried them all, but my sister introduced me to the Calm app (free and paid versions both available in the app store at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/calm-meditate-sleep-relax/id571800810?mt=8), and I use their guided meditations to kickstart my practice each morning (I generally listen to one of their 15-minute meditation sessions, followed by 10-15 minutes of silent meditation). The app also features a selection of soothing sounds and scenes to calm your mind wherever you are (I particularly like the rainfall option), as well as meditation timers, week- and month-long programs (I’ve done both), and a calendar where you can track your progress.

*For the record, nobody paid or asked me to talk about this app, or any product in particular– it’s just a tool that has been very useful to me, and I’d like to share it with others. I’m thinking of reviewing more anxiety-help apps for future posts… What do you all think? Would that be helpful?

If you give it a try, let me know what you think about Calm in the comments!

Love and optimism(!),

S

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