The jury will always be out on the nature / nurture debate when it comes to personality traits and this is so true for optimism. Are we born to have a positive out look or are we biologically wired to see all the doom, gloom and predict future catastrophe? If indeed it is learned behaviour I am unsure where I learnt to be optimistic as honestly my family tend to be very dramatic and ‘eventful’ foreseeing multiple catastrophes and almost embracing of the imminent ‘dooms day’ – normally down at the local A&E department or the doctors surgery. I know as they read this, their jaws will drop open, they will feel that it is so not the case – hard done by because I have just publicly cussed them, my point – highlighted!
Those people who predict the worst ever scenario and create a pool of anxiety that sends them running in the opposite direction or spiralling in to a depressive mind numbing state. Well, their brains are in fact wired differently; yes, it is not actually their fault – I hate giving anyone a ‘get out of jail free’ card but they now have it! There you go. Under MRI scans their brains do indeed show more activity than those with a positive outlook. It is probably because their creative part of their brain is going wild with generating all those possible (although unlikely) very terrible outcomes.
With this pessimism comes all that anxiety that will in turn create more possible worst case scenarios in an event to feel less anxious but ultimately creating an even more heightened anxious state of mind, and so the monster self feeds. Studies have also shown that the more pessimistic the person the unhealthier they tend to be, have an increased risk of a stroke and can take up to 10 years of their life. These people are on the look out for disaster so in turn find disaster. You know when you are looking for a new car you suddenly see particular models or specific colours out on the road – everywhere.
Anyway, for those of you reading this thinking that your way of thinking is not your fault, it is the way your brain is wired, I am going to snatch back that ‘get out of jail free’ card now: We can in fact retrain our brain – Yes, you can teach yourself to be optimistic. By working through negative feelings, by separating our emotions from external stimulus and quite literally talking sense in to ourselves. The more we do it, the better we become at it and we in turn make optimistic thinking a habitual process. Our brain works along the idea of polar opposites: Yin and Yang, to have day we must have night, to have beauty we in turn create ugly therefore if we have a problem we also have solutions. WE CANNOT HAVE PROBLEMS WITHOUT SOLUTIONS! You heard me right, let me just hand this half-full glass to you again – You have the solutions, just stop focussing on the problem.
However, here is a curve ball: Optimistic is not the approach you necessarily want to always adopt, neither is pessimistic but in fact I want you to think of your levels of optimism and pessimism as a sliding scale. Because the benefits of adopting a flexible and fluid approach where you strategically match your mind set to the path you want to be on is going to be far more beneficial to you.
Both outlooks are concerning feelings about the future, a way to manage emotion and influence us in our decisions. Taking a pessimistic stance is all about ego protection and shielding our vulnerabilities, but this view can get in the way of progress, limit the opportunities we see and cause a great deal of stress, anxiety and lead to a depressive state where we feel out of control. An optimistic stance allows us to tolerate the stresses of uncertainty and perceive goals as achievable.
Now you are wondering how can pessimism be beneficial and when is optimism not? Too much optimism can lead to feelings of overconfidence and being unprepared for unforeseen situations. A pessimistic approach can be beneficial at helping us to avoid potential catastrophes, the ability to see something coming lessens the blow and ensures we are prepared for it. Forewarned really is forearmed.
When my eldest was born she was in and out of hospital, week after week, probe after probe, test after test and it seemed just as I would pull myself back together and tell myself it was all going to be alright something else would happen and the kick in my stomach would be far worse. It created a fear and I was in a very anxious and depressive state. Then my second daughter’s kidney failed and I was thrown in to such a deeper turmoil where I had absolutely no control. I remember saying to myself that I cannot take this anymore and looked at the worst case scenario: one of my daughter’s should die, which let’s face it, they could do, they could do and it not even be related to their ongoing health conditions. God this was the worst, and if it should happen I wouldn’t be able to bear it but it is out of my control and there is nothing I could do about it. Now my heart goes out to any parent who has lost a child, I cannot possibly imagine the pain and the void that brings. But somehow, thinking the worse and accepting that I had no control kind of made the anxiety far less, made me stronger and gradually the big black cloud that was always hanging over my head started to fade. I could take whatever the doctors would say and started taking each day at a time. Ironically their health also went from strength to strength from this turning point in my perception.
If you are wanting to reduce anxiety, break negative thought patterns and retrain the way you think about the future then the programmes I run blending hypnosis, NLP and EFT facilitate change far quicker than conventional counselling alone.