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How to develop optimism in challenging times

Doom and gloom surround us at the moment, but we have a choice about how we approach this situation. In her latest article in a series about adaptability during times of uncertainty, Emma Sue Prince explains that optimism isn’t an innate quality – it’s a thinking strategy you can deploy to get through this tough period.

3rd Feb 2021
Director Unimenta
Columnist
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Back view of woman opens the curtain and sees the light.
iStock/Ponomariova_Maria

It may feel slightly superficial to talk about optimism when there is so much around you that is uncertain, difficult, and quite frankly at times frightening and surreal. It’s challenging to be optimistic when you yourself or people around you might be going through real hardship emotionally, mentally, or financially.  Despite all of this, it is crucial that we can tap into optimism and nurture it even with everything that’s going on. In the midst of change and high uncertainty, it is still possible to feel happy, productive and fulfilled.

History tells us that during times of great stress, our values and priorities become very clear. 

We have a choice in how we think about any situation we face. Much of cultivating real optimism is knowing this and using tools that allow us to reframe a situation – any situation. Rather than a quality or a trait that some people just seem to have, think of optimism more like a thinking strategy and a skill. In this sense, if you focus on building optimism you will also build confidence and personal strength. These, alongside strong wellbeing strategies, are the foundation of resilience.

learning strategy hub link

Adapt. Recalibrate. Carry on

Our current circumstances provide the perfect opportunity to do just that. In times of great challenge, it is possible for our best selves to step up because in the midst of uncertainty, we learn how to trust. In the midst of disappointment, we get better at acknowledging and tolerating unpleasant emotions, and in the midst of illness, we develop deeper appreciation for our health and that of loved ones.

History tells us that during times of great stress, our values and priorities become very clear. We adapt. We recalibrate. We carry on. This just seems to happen and we notice it most in hindsight, but not so much whilst it is actually going on.

The very best way to build optimism right now lies in the things that you do every day – the seemingly little things. Try these (and encourage those around you to do so too) and you will begin to notice an impact.

  1. Practise gratitude
    Study after study show that a simple daily practice of gratitude allows us to build optimism. It’s an actual practice: keeping a journal or making a note of what you are grateful for every day helps give perspective and helps your mind, which will naturally gravitate towards the negative during uncertainty, look for the positives in your day.
     
  2. Write it down
    When we are experiencing a lot of change, our minds function better if we allow ourselves space to process that change. Keeping a journal is a great way to start to make sense of your feelings and to get thoughts out of your head. Even better, end your day by writing down your positive experiences. Even in the midst of extreme crisis these can be found. Start with what is around you and go from there.
     
  3. Understand your triggers
    Part of developing good self-awareness is understanding anything that may trigger potential stress for you. This might be information, news and social media overload (do you check your phone compulsively?), feeling overwhelmed, or even a particular person who rubs you up the wrong way or keeps wanting to discuss the pandemic. Take some time to understand what is likely to trigger stress.
     
  4. Manage stress levels
    This is so important when it comes to optimism. Look after yourself and do this by creating slower mornings, switching off from technology regularly and finding more effective ways to manage it. Have measures in place to help yourself, whether that’s as simple as getting sufficient sleep and eating nurturing foods, or listening to a positive podcast instead of the news. If in doubt, practise kindness – both to yourself and to others.
     
  5. Create positive experiences
    Recent research has found that the more positive experiences we can plan into our day, the bigger impact this has on our positivity levels. It’s the quantity that counts here so really simple boosts like enjoying a cup of tea and slice of cake, making time to meet with a friend (even online), or going for a relaxing and energising walk. Get these into your every day as much as you possibly can.
     
  6. Get outside
    Do this as much as you can and preferably in daylight and in nature. Walking and being outside boosts wellbeing, gives you space and will shake off any feelings of negativity, stress or overwhelm, allowing you to get some fresh perspective and some fresh air and oxygen to the brain.
     
  7. Sharpen your mind
    Make time for something that stimulates your brain every day. We are hard-wired for learning and for challenges, so find that interesting podcast, read a chapter of a book on a new subject or actively seek to learn something new. You may discover a new skill or interest too and it takes the focus away from news overwhelm.
     
  8. Breathe
    Slow down more and use breathing to create a sense of calm. The ‘three, four, five’ method is great – breathe in for three counts, hold for four and breathe out for five. This takes all of half a minute but doing it regularly boosts oxygen to the brain, which gives an instant sense of wellbeing.
     
  9. Drink more water
    We are 70% water and we don’t drink enough of it. If you ever feel a bit sluggish or out of sorts, try drinking a glass of water first. We are often far more dehydrated than we think, which has a negative effect on us physically and mentally.

Finally, I will leave you with a quote from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which is an aphorism for our times if ever there was one: “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise”.

Interested in this topic? Read How to boost your optimism through self-awareness.

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