Health

4 Helpful Ways to Stay Positive During Anxious Times

Add more joy to your life with these tricks for switching on "can-do" thoughts.

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Live, laugh, love. The mantra on your coworker’s coffee cup taunts you as you wearily sip your own java. If it were only that simple, you think, bracing yourself for a day of nonstop to-do’s. Being in a positive frame of mind is easier said (or written on the side of a cup) than done. Or is it? Studies show there are joy-boosting steps we can all take to pump up our Positive Intelligence Quotient (PQ), the measure of how quickly we recover from stress and shift into a state of resilience.

“Positive brains are three times more creative and 31 percent more productive than negative or even neutral brains,” reveals Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness ($11.22 [Originally $24.95], Amazon). And that’s only half the feel-good story — positivity also improves our physical health. Says Blankson, “People with high positive intelligence are half as likely to develop heart disease and 50 percent likelier to reach a happy, healthy 94 years of age.”

How do we tap our PQ power? By building “muscle” to fight stress, observes Shirzad Chamine, PhD, author of Positive Intelligence ($16.96 [Originally $23.95], Amazon). “Our psychological saboteurs, such as our inner critics, have ‘muscle power’ in the form of neural pathways that get stronger each time we react negatively to a situation,” he explains. Thankfully, the reverse is also true: Every time we respond with “I can,” our PQ grows more formidable.

The key is recognizing that just as positivity and negativity are polar opposites, so are the brain regions that birth these warring mind-sets. In fact, stress lives in a primitive area Chamine calls the survivor brain, while positive intelligence resides in a kind of “penthouse suite” and home of higher thinking, in the frontal cortex, he dubs the sage brain. Building up the latter will help you recover from stressful setbacks. Read on for strategies shown to help you kick negativity to the curb!

Negativity Trap: Surrendering to feeling frazzled.

You’ve been juggling everything from work assignments to home projects, and between your to-do list and really-must- do-list, your stress is on overdrive. But every time you try to relax, anxious thoughts start to swirl like a tornado. Observes Chamine, “While we can command stress to quiet down and train our brain to be more positive through meditation, research shows that most of us have trouble getting into this relaxing frame of mind.”

Positivity Booster: Cue calm with a fingertip meditation.

No need to cordon off hours — or even minutes — to reap the rewards of mindfulness. “Studies show it takes only seconds to quell stress,” says Chamine, who recommends gently rubbing together two fingertips for 10 seconds. By shifting your focus to a physical sensation, this tactile meditation tames tension. And since nerve endings are so concentrated in our fingertips, they offer a “direct path” to our brain, helping us feel serene almost instantly.

Negativity Trap: Giving yourself over to self-doubt.

You secured a coveted job interview, yet you can’t help but dwell on a recent opportunity that didn’t go well, and your determination soon turns to dread. “The very definition of optimism is the belief that our behavior matters,” says Blankson. But replaying a setback convinces our brain that the same thing is going to happen again — and when we don’t feel in control of our fate, we lose confidence quickly.

Positivity Booster: Replay your greatest hits.

Recalling moments of joy dramatically increases self-efficacy. “In one study, preschoolers who were asked to think of a happy memory before playing with blocks stacked them 40 percent faster,” says Blankson. “And doctors who recalled a joyful memory before seeing a patient arrived at an accurate diagnosis 10 percent faster.” That’s because optimism greases the wheels of our neurons, helping us problem-solve.

Negativity Trap: Not being able to shake a sense of guilt.

When a last-minute deadline forces you to back out of a volunteer project, you feel intensely bad. “We tend to believe guilt serves us somehow, and we deserve it,” observes Chamine. But, he says, negative emotions are like pain receptors in your hand when you touch a hot stove: They’re only useful for a split second to alert you to get out of harm’s way. In other words, negativity is only “useful” for a moment, to signal it’s time to adopt a positive mind-set.

Positivity Booster: Evict your inner ‘judge’

Your inner critic, what Chamine calls the “judge,” thrives on guilt. How to silence it? Label it. “If you think, I let them down, tell yourself that’s just my ‘judge’ talking.” Turning this critical voice into a “third party” creates healthy distance from the negative thought, so you can easily embrace a more upbeat attitude. “Our ‘sage brain’ helps us see silver linings and glean wisdom that we can’t access when we’re thinking negatively.”

Negativity Trap: Fearing the worst

You’re happily on board a plane taking you and your best friend on a long-delayed and much-deserved girls’ getaway, but when turbulence jostles the jet, your mood nosedives and you immediately assume the worst… even after the flight settles down. “Just the anticipation of a potential threat hyper-activates our amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, triggering a strong stress response,” explains Blankson, who promises that we can all become less anxious and prone to worry simply by learning to savor even the smallest positives in life.

Positivity Booster: Stack up gratitude

The antidote to catastrophizing? Optimism. And the more we practice it, the more resilient we become. Just like habit stacking — or piggybacking a new habit onto an established one to help the new routine stick — you can “tether” gratitude to an existing ritual to prime you to savor your blessings, says Blankson. “Every time I make coffee, for example, I note three things I’m grateful for,” she says. “An amazing 11 million bits of information come at your brain each second, like snow in a snow globe — teaching your brain to see the positives is like getting it to notice a few beautiful snowflakes instead of getting lost in the storm.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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